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Jess Lewis had field day as OSU groundskeeper

by: COURTESY OF OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY - Jess Lewis starred for Oregon State in both football and wrestling during one of the school's golden eras, and he has given a lot to the Beavers since his playing days.CORVALLIS — After he turns off the last irrigation spigot, locks up the equipment shed and heads home on his final day of full employment at Oregon State on July 28, Jess Lewis won’t disappear.

Lewis, hanging it up after 21 years as the school’s athletic grounds maintenance supervisor, has some plans after retirement. They don’t include a permanent goodbye.

“I don’t think Jess will ever fully leave,” says baseball coach Pat Casey. “He’ll go fishing and hunting and enjoying some things, but he’ll be around.”

He’d better. If there is a more popular employee of the OSU athletic department, I’m not sure who it is.

“Beloved” would not be a stretch. He’s darn good at what he does — overseeing a staff of five full-time maintenance employees as well as additional part-time student help. And his cheery presence and perpetual work ethic is something his friends and co-workers will miss.

“What’s the movie with The Grinch, where his heart grows three sizes?” asks athletic director Bob De Carolis. “Jess’ heart is like 10 times as big as a normal person’s. He loves the athletic department, loves Oregon State. He’ll do whatever it takes to help. What a great person — and strong as an ox.”

Lewis, who turns 66 on July 28, is one of the greatest athletes in Oregon State history. He was an All-America defensive tackle and a two-time NCAA heavyweight champion and Olympic wrestler in the late 1960s. Lewis still looks the part.

“He could still win the heavyweight championship,” Casey says with a laugh. “If he grabbed you and didn’t want to let go, you’d have to call for help.”

“Jess is an institution at Oregon State,” says OSU football coach Mike Riley, son of former assistant coach Bud Riley, who worked under Dee Andros during Lewis’ playing days. “I had the good fortune of watching him play football and wrestle. He is one of the most elite athletes ever in our school’s history.”

Lewis played one year in the NFL with the Houston Oilers after his college days were over, but by then had begun a spiral downward in his personal life.

“I hurt my knee and was getting knocked out on the field, but what was creeping up more than anything was my drug use,” Lewis says. “It weakens your soul.”

Lewis started with marijuana, moved on to speed, and finally methamphetamine, which ultimately became his drug of choice. Living and working at the time at his family farm in Aumsville, he failed at an outpatient treatment program.

“I would go through $100 worth (of drugs) a day,” Lewis told me in 2002. “And it kept getting worse. The farm gave me a quarter of a million dollars in stocks over a period of years, and I blew all of it. I didn’t know any way out, and frankly, I didn’t care.”

The woman who had become Jess’ second wife, the late Vickie Lewis, also was a heavy drug user during those years. Kicked off the Aumsville farm by family, they lived in the woods near Detroit Lake for three years in the late 1980s. Lewis earned a meager living cutting trees and clearing power lines with chainsaws.

In 1990, Lewis’ wrestling coach at OSU, the late Dale Thomas, did a one-man intervention.

“He was the right person to come along,” Lewis says now.

Both Jess and Vickie — they were married for 19 years and together for about 30 — entered a 28-day, in-patient treatment program. It saved both of their lives.

“I’ve had one or two beers a few times since then,” Lewis said, “but I haven’t gone overboard. (Alcohol and drugs) just doesn’t do it for me anymore. I feel good about that.”

Soon after his release from the treatment program, Lewis was hired on a part-time basis to help with athletic grounds maintenance at his alma mater. There were some reservations at first, given his substance abuse history. He quickly showed the athletic department’s faith in hiring him was well-founded.

“I’m surprised I turned out as healthy as I was after going through what I did,” Lewis says. “I know a lot of people who have had a lot of repercussions after doing that stuff. Luckily, it didn’t take me any further than what it did. It was such a rough road.”

Lewis earned a master’s degree in education, left for a year to serve as a counselor at a treatment center, then returned to head OSU’s athletic grounds maintenance program in 1992. For nearly 20 years — until 2012 — he also helped teach a class called “Drugs in Sports,” offered to the general student body as well as many of the school’s student-athletes. He has spent much time counseling Beaver athletes on pitfalls they may encounter off the athletic fields.

“Jess has been in that counselor’s role and has mentored some kids through the issues,” De Carolis says. “He has been very instrumental in impacting the kids’ lives that way.”

“That was a great thing for me, and I hope for other people,” Lewis says. “We passed on a lot of information about what you need to do to be successful. We wanted to give the kids some confidence in what they can do to handle situations. Many of those kids went out to middle schools and put on presentations for younger kids. They really did a good job with it.”

Lewis has always been a glass-half-full type of personality. That, combined with his giant physical presence and athletic ability, have made him a larger-than-life figure.

“I was two years behind him at Cascade High,” says Craig Hanneman, another eventual All-America defensive tackle at OSU. “To play football with him, and to have him become one of my best friends, was a real thrill. Anybody who has been around Jess, not one person won’t say he’s a great guy. That’s about the best thing you can say about a person.”

Former OSU linebacker Alan Darlin, now a grad assistant, worked on Lewis’ summer maintenance crew for five years.

“It was a pleasure,” Darlin says. “I got to know Jess really well. He loves life, is happy, fun to be around. He’s one of the most humble people you’ll ever meet. And a super hard-working guy.”

Those who worked under him found he demanded work ethic, too.

“One summer, Jess sent all the other guys out to do weed-pulling and painting,” Darlin recalls. “He’d put (ex-OSU safety) Greg Laybourn and me out behind the softball fields, and we’d split wood for six hours an afternoon. We worked six hours a day, five days a week for probably 15 days that summer. It was exhausting. That’s the way you really get in shape.”

Casey and Riley have both worked closely with Lewis over the years.

“Jess was one of the first guys I met when I started here (in 1994),” Casey says. “He gets along with everybody, but for whatever reason, we hit it off immediately. He knew I was a guy who wasn’t going to sit around and whine. I was going to get in there and get dirty with him.

“At that time, there wasn’t anybody who was going to help us do anything with baseball. We had nothing but ratty bleachers and a heavy tarp. He went to bat for me. Every time I think of Jess, I think of those cracked hands in the dirt, cuts on them. He’s always been a man’s man. If there is a problem, Jess is always, ‘Let’s go.’ There’s nothing in the athletic department he hasn’t fixed.”

Riley has always loved to point out the guy taking care of the athletic grounds to recruits.

“See that guy over there driving the tractor?” he would say. “That’s Jess Lewis, one of the great athletes in Oregon State history.”

“It’s neat to see a guy who made a name for himself and for the university putting his heart and soul into his school,” Riley says. “He has influenced a ton of kids as their supervisor and running the ‘Drugs in Sports’ class. He has been a big part of our athletic program.”

Riley had misgivings about replacing the grass at Tommy Prothro Practice Field with

artificial turf so it could become a multi-use facility because of the job Lewis did in maintenance.

“That grass was immaculate, like a putting green,” Riley says. “Jess took pride in it. He takes great pride in all the work he does. I don’t know how we’ll function without him. He puts in a lot of extra time and energy making this place look good.”

Lewis said retirement will be “bittersweet. I have some awfully good memories. So many good things have happened. Being around and involved in athletics at Oregon State has been really good for me.”

The biggest sorrow is the loss of Vickie, who died in April 2012 of lung cancer.

“She was a great friend, a great person,” he says. “I’m doing OK. Kind of lonesome at times. Tons of people have stepped up and been great to me. But I surely miss her.”

Lewis will maintain his home in Corvallis but spend time helping his brothers, Jim and Ed, run the family farm in Aumsville. He also has plans to travel.

“I’ll go see some of the fellas I’ve befriended here over the years,” he says.

And he’ll continue to work part-time with athletic grounds maintenance.

“I’d like to take over the irrigation with the fields,” he says. “I’ll probably work some weekends, and I’d like to stay with the student summer crews. Just being around those guys helps keep me young.”

Lewis is grateful his life turned the way it did.

“I had the right people come into my life at the right time,” he says.

Lewis has been that guy, too, for plenty of people.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers