Last fall – when pre-election angst and anger were at their peak – Dave and I contacted over two dozen Philadelphia artists, writers and performers, and asked them to pose for our windows holding upbeat signs with words like create, collaborate, envision and, yes, VOTE….
Twenty-eight smiling artists lit up our South Philadelphia windows last October to remind us that we really do have more in common than not.
As you may recall, participants included everyone from singer Bobby Rydell and comedian Jennifer Childs, to jazz pianist Alfie Pollitt and sculptor Miguel Antonio Horn.
But there was one window, front and center, that was reserved for my earliest role model.
IN PHILADELPHIA, NEARLY EVERYONE READS….
Like today, the late 1960s were a confusing and complex time to be a teenager and, three days a week, I’d rush home from high school, tear open the Philadelphia Bulletin, and read Claude Lewis’ column.
Philadelphia’s first black newspaper columnist, Claude Lewis, during his Philadelphia Bulletin days. (Photo courtesy of the Lewis Family.)
Lewis had a magical way of taking complex and often scary subjects and bringing them down to human size – to people and ideas that you could relate to and care about – and I longed to write like him.
So when Sister Dolores Donovan named me the new feature editor of the St. Hubert’s High School newspaper, I screwed up my courage, called the Bulletin, and boldly asked to interview him.
MEETING MY HERO
And, yes, I still remember the thrill of hopping on the Frankford el in my high school uniform and saddle shoes and walking into the Bulletin.
I was a few minutes early, so Lewis asked me step around the corner and take a seat. But – being a typical teenager and more than a little nervous – I turned the wrong way and sat down in the first empty office I saw.
Decades later, my most vivid memory of that day in 1971 is of me standing next to my hero while an angry editor dressed us both down, demanding to know “Who told this kid she could sit in my office?”
I was mortified, but I also remember being impressed that “Wow! Real newspaper editors are just as grouchy as the ones in the movies….!”
Cathy (aka Kate) Mellina, girl journalist, at left, with St. Hubert’s sports editor Janice H.
INTO THE FUTURE
Somehow we both survived, and I got my treasured interview – and I still have family members who talk about the day that “Catherine” interviewed Claude Lewis.
When I left for college, Lewis followed: Every week, my mom would include his latest writing in her snail-mail care packages.
But his influence went way beyond those newspaper clippings: It was there when I joined the college newspaper and wrote about everything from closeted gay students to women’s liberation.
And it was there 25 years later when I became an Asbury Park, NJ councilwoman and newspaper columnist who wrote about poverty, crime, election fraud, and the good-hearted people who were working to save our sad little town.
Claude Lewis in 1982, shortly after he co-founded The National Leader, the first national black weekly newspaper. He later worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote biographies, and produced and/or appeared on a variety of television and radio programs. (Photo courtesy of the Lewis Family.)
And his influence was there again last October when we photographed over 300 more Philadelphians holding those same upbeat signs and posted their smiling faces on our blog.
RECONNECTING IN 2016
That’s why, when we started our anti-election-angst photo project, I knew that the central window overlooking East Passyunk’s “singing fountain” belonged to him.
Lewis joined Bobby Rydell (top left), Jennifer Childs (top center) and two dozen other Philadelphia artists, writers and performers in our pre-election windows.
It took me almost five weeks to find him. And, yes, I cheerfully annoyed a whole new generation of newspaper editors and writers before Kate Binzen, daughter of former Inquirer writer Peter Binzen, reconnected us.
Lewis had just returned home from several weeks in a rehab hospital and he warned me that he could no longer see, but he invited Dave and me to visit him and his wife Beverly.
BACK TO THE PAST
And so, on a sunny summer day, we drove across the Ben Franklin Bridge, and I felt like I was 17 years old again: There was Claude Lewis, characteristically gracious and kind, and just as sharp as ever.
And there was me – totally mortified because we’d forgotten to pack the sign he was supposed to hold.
Working with Kate? It pays to have a sense of humor….
So my second most vivid Claude Lewis memory is of him posing in the hall of his apartment building – holding two AARP newsletters that Dave then had to Photoshop over with a copy of the sign.
That night I went down to my studio and pulled out a manila envelope that I’ve been carrying around for, well, 46 years now. And inside was a 1971 copy of the St. Hubert’s High School “Tally-Ho” newspaper with my Claude Lewis interview.
And, yes, I was so nervous about not misquoting him that I included not a single direct quote.
A LIFE OF COURAGE AND HEART
At a recent memorial service, a local television journalist noted that some people get your attention by getting in your face, but Claude Lewis made points by getting into your heart.
To read more about Lewis’ remarkable, ground-breaking career – from his early friendship with Langston Hughes, to being beaten by police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, to his co-founding of the National Association of Black Journalists, see journalist Pete Binzen’s 2016 tribute here and the Inquirer’s 2017 memorial here.
So thank you, Claude Lewis, for showing this awkward, blue-collar, 1960s Philadelphia kid – in fact, a whole generation of us – that we could be so much more than we knew.
Claude Lewis (1934-2017)