ROBERT WILLIAM LEWIS, SR. was born on April 27, 1924 in Great Falls, SC, the fourth child of eight, to James Arthur Lewis, Sr. and Martha Barber Lewis. As a youngster, the family moved to Buffalo, NY. Robert graduated Buffalo Public School System -- both elementary and Hutchinson Central High in 1942, and set the high jump record at 6’4,” with an eye competing in the Olympic Games of 1948, but volunteered for the U.S. Army instead.
Robert served in WWII from 1943 to 1945, mustering out with a Sergeant’s rank, and receiving a Five Service Star commendation. His service included duties on the legendary Red Ball Express that allowed Gen. George Patton and the Third Army to quickly sweep across France into Germany, supported by RBE much- needed supplies of food, ammunition and gasoline. While overseas, Bob, as he was known by many represented the United States Army in a number of track and field athletic competitions in Europe (Reims, France; Frankfurt and Nuremberg, Germany; and London, England), receiving personal letters of commendation from Generals John Lee and George Patton.
During tryouts for the 1948 U.S. Olympic Team, Robert caught the eye of a coach from Michigan State University who offered him a full athletic scholarship. He chose, instead, to stay in Buffalo and married Frances Johnson. To the union, five children were born: Robert, Jr., Herbert (Bilal), Loretta, Daniel, and Walter. As a family man with a strong sense of independence, he developed several streams of income: preparing tax returns and becoming skilled as a furniture maker.
In 1947, Robert was hired by the International Railway Company -- later becoming the NFTA. He was one of the first, and few, black men operating streetcars in Buffalo. During his career in transportation he rose from bus driver, then supervisor, to district manager until making history as the first African-American executive of the NFTA as Vice President of Transportation. During his tenure with this organization he not only supervised the daily operations, but engaged and mentored a number of young adults seeking employment in transportation. In 1989, Bob retired,after a 42-year career, to care for his wife.
Mr. Lewis’s entrepreneurial spirit reached deep within his community: he was a joint owner of Ellicott Lanes, an eight-lane bowling alley on Genesee Street, and later, bought Allied Lanes, which, ultimately, became Ellicott-Allied Bowling Center, a 32-lane complex. His business acumen led him to own Bond’s Barbeque and Fran’s Delicatessen on East Utica Street.
Robert W. Lewis, Sr., endured segregation – in the army and stateside when he returned. But, it was the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60’s that strengthened his resolve to uplift and encourage black youth and contribute to the community, financially and by his example. He encouraged many young men in the community to be responsible fathers and citizens and to conduct every aspect of their lives with integrity.
His commitment to sharing the belief that God put us here to live the best life possible is evidenced in his service and dedication to his church, the St. Paul’s A.M.E. Zion Church. Robert was an official and long-term member of the Trustee Board. He gave generously of his time, energy and resources to the building of the new church before and after the 1993 propane explosion that leveled the church’s original, early 19th century edifice. He also served several years as the Regional President of AARP.
A constant in his life, one fundamental to his many great achievements, was his strong belief in God, and a faith that undergirded his philosophy of life and his work ethic. He knew that hard work, perseverance and patience along with faith in God would serve him well and it did. To God Be the Glory.
Robert is preceded in death by by his wife, Frances E.; sons, Robert (Elaine), Daniel, and Walter; siblings, Jeannette Williams, James A. (Mary) Lewis, II, Mattie (Albert) Thompson, and Wardell Lewis.
Robert is survived by his children, Bilal Herbert (Valerie) and Loretta Lewis Brooks; a sister & sister-in-law, Sarah L. Lewis and Viola Rogers Lewis, respectively, and a host of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, relatives and friends.
Family will receive friends Saturday, November 17, 2018, 10 am at St. Paul’s A.M.E. Zion Church, 610 East Eagle St. Funeral to follow at 11am. Interment at Buffalo Cemetery.