Doctoral learner, abandoned as a teen, lives to serve
Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the November issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version of the magazine, click here.
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
“Those Lewis boys. They’ll never amount to anything.”
Those words — they’ll never amount to anything — have been the sticks and stones that have driven David Lewis’ life.
He was just 14 when his parents divorced — when his world ended.
“My mom moved back to Europe with my youngest brother,” said Lewis, who grew up an Army brat. His father subsequently moved David and his younger brother to Odessa, Texas.
And that’s where his father, who struggled with alcohol problems, left them.
“He said he was going to Wyoming.”
Lewis and his brother? They had nowhere to go.
A rescue mission took them in, but, “It was not a family rescue mission. It was all men — lots of drunks and winos.”
Separate families took in the brothers. Lewis, who was placed with a single mother and her three children, was able to complete his sophomore year in high school, but then the world started calling.
“After 10th grade, I decided to go on my own,” Lewis said. “… I lied about my age and started working on a drilling rig.”
He worked in the oil fields until he was 17 and then ran into the family he had left. When they said they were moving back to Alabama, Lewis rode with them and ended up working a much sought-after job in the shipyards before taking yet another big life turn.
This time, he did a stint in the Marine Corps Reserve, where a gunnery sergeant sat him down and pushed him to finish high school and complete his general education degree.
It was the first time Lewis realized the importance of education.
His Marine Corps Reserve career was short-lived. With his GED in hand, he returned to Texas, where his journey began, and to the oil fields.
It was when he almost was killed while working on a drilling rig that he decided to make a change.
He was just 22; he had lived a lifetime.
He returned to the military, this timeserving as a firefighter in the Army, where he served for 21 years, responding to hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and mass casualties.
“I really enjoyed the camaraderie among the firefighters. … I loved it. I loved the fact that people always saw you as welcoming.”
And he spent some time in Mogadishu, Somalia, too.
“I saw how horrible and poor the world was,” Lewis said. “When I see on TV some of the things people are protesting …”
He finished up his military career as an instructor at the Louis F. Garland Fighting Academy at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas. He supervised up to 10 instructors and was responsible for all the training in his section.
Not that retiring from the Army meant Lewis has ever stopped.
Not even close.
He delved into a resident training course to become a police officer while holding down a full-time job. Until recently, he volunteered as a reserve sheriff’s deputy.
He now works for the Army as a government employee. He is chief of the Directorate of Training and Leadership Development’s Compliance Department at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
As if that weren’t enough, Lewis has been reaching for even more.
“My current wife (Tammy) said I had a lot of potential. So I started going back to school.”
He was 39, an age when most people have settled into that one career and have started looking toward retirement.
In 2001, Lewis returned to school and, a few years later, had completed not one but three associate’s degrees – in arts, fire science and instructor of technology and military science from the Community College of the Air Force.
He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Public Safety Management and two master’s degrees from GCU, in Executive Fire Service Leadership and Leadership with an Emphasis on Disaster Preparedness and Crisis Management.
Now he’s back at GCU as an online student to earn his doctorate.
Looking at his life as an Army firefighter, reserve sheriff’s deputy and Marine, he said the common thread he has noticed is that, much like one of the core beliefs of GCU – to serve – he indeed knows his purpose.
“I guess I’ve been a public servant in so many ways. … I enjoy giving back,” he said. “Had it not been for people helping me in my life, I don’t know where I would have been.”
No one in his family has a degree, he said, though one brother is in college now.
“I will say one thing. The women in my life have had the biggest influence on me. … I just didn’t want to let them down.”
But more than that, the 54-year-old father of five, grandfather of six and great-grandfather of one said he remembers those biting words from his youth.
“I was always the kid you didn’t want to go out with your daughter. … School was one of the things I pushed myself to do,” he said. “There is one more motive. As I was growing up, my brother and I were always looked at as those kids that would never do anything with themselves. … They’re never going to be nothing.”
They were wrong.
You can reach GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at (602) 639-7901 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LanaSweetenShul.