Susie Brown Lewis’ seat on the front row of the Veterans for Peace program Saturday didn’t come spur of the moment.
Or maybe it did. But the moment was some four decades ago. In fact, at Saturday’s program, Lewis introduced the speakers, Doug Zachary and Hart Viges, and said she and Zachary had been friends — and peace advocates — since the 1960s.
In an interview following the program, Lewis said, “All my life I’ve wanted to help other people.”
Her father had been career Air Force, and growing up in a military family, she expected her father would be in favor of the U.S. presence in Vietnam.
“But he wasn’t,” Lewis said. “My father was a retired from the Air Force. He was a major. But he said, ‘We should not be in this war.’ We talked for a long time about it and he helped me understand a lot of the things about peace and about people I believe today.”
Lewis started college at what was then Arlington State and is now the University of Texas at Arlington and began volunteering at an office on campus offering assistance and counseling “for people who weren’t thinking war was the way,” she said.
At that time, the military draft was going full scale, and young men were being drafted into the Army against their wishes. “If they wanted not to be in the service, we knew that to get 4-F status there were minor things that the government didn’t mention you could do. One of those was to apply to be a conscientious objector,” Lewis said.
Lewis, who will turn 60 in January, thinks of herself as being a peaceful person for peace.
“People for some reason associate being for peace as being someone who is very liberal,” Lewis said. “To my thinking, being peaceful is very conservative. Jesus was a peaceful man. Jesus thought peace should always prevail. In his sermon on the mount, he told the people to stand up for what they believed in, but he said if someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other also to them.”
After college, working at a job at a shelter for adults with mental or physical challenges, teaching them basic life skills, Lewis met her husband, Monty Lewis, who worked at the same shelter.
“Monty was a wonderful man. We married when I was 26. We moved from the Metroplex and then Monty was a professor at Cisco Junior College. I had a job teaching English at Carbon,” she said.
They had two children, daughters Lillian and Alyssa, and after a while, Susie — or Susan, as she went by then — began work on her master’s degree at Hardin-Simmons in Abilene. She intended to get the graduate degree in English, she said. Already she was a poet, and the language and literature intrigued her.
But a mentor at Hardin-Simmons suggested she focus on reading aspects, getting a degree that would allow her to teach teens or adults who had never learned or been able to read, and the idea of being able to help people in such a basic and important aspect of their lives became her dream.
“That’s what I did,” Lewis said. “And I was so happy I did.”
The family moved to Brownwood. Monty got a professor’s position at Howard Payne; Susan, a job with the Brownwood Independent School District working with students who had literacy problems.
Then, rather suddenly, in 1996, Monty Lewis died. Susan was 48, a widow with a daughter about ready to enter high school, and another daughter who was a very young single mother attending Howard Payne.
Two weeks after Monty Lewis died, Susan Lewis’ father also died.
“We were kind of loaded down with grief,” she said. “I think at first we thought we would need to go somewhere, make some place else our home. But we didn’t. Alyssa even said, ‘This is our home. This is where everyone knows what we’ve been through.’”
Tough times were still ahead. In 1999, Lewis was diagnosed with breast cancer. She’d recovered from that fairly well, but her mother, a cancer survivor, died in 2000 when her cancer recurred. Just a short time after her mother’s funeral, Susan Lewis suffered a stroke.
“I had low blood pressure. I wasn’t overweight. I was 50 years old,” she said. “The doctors believe I had what is called a bleed out, where a blood vessel is weak and blood escapes into the brain. Most people who have that kind of a stroke don’t survive.”
The doctors told Alyssa and Lillian their mother would probably never speak or be able to talk, and that in all likelihood she would never be able to get out of bed on her own. The doctors advice to the daughters was to begin to research nursing homes for their mother.
But Susan Lewis beat the odds. She talks, she walks with a cane, she drives a car and lives independently. She spent four years recuperating in Denton, but a little less than three years ago, decided she wanted to come “back home.”
“I got very involved with the Brownwood Art Association. I can’t write poetry any more because I can barely read, I can’t write and I can’t spell, but I can draw modestly and I paint watercolor.
“I exercise more, and I think I’m getting stronger every day.
“And I made friends at the Democratic Party, wonderful friends, and friends at First United Methodist in Brownwood. Brownwood’s my home. I’m the same person, but changed. I’m Susie, which is not as formal as Susan.”