Robert “Bob” Lewis Jr., a long time anchor at WJHL, passed away early Monday morning at a local hospital. He would have been 67 on Thursday.
Lewis began his career at WJHL in 1967. He worked at the station for 40 years, until he retired in 2007. Over those 40 years, he helped build the station’s news presence.
“Bob Lewis was a news icon in the Tri-Cities region and a strong foundation on which WJHL’s rich news legacy was built,” said Rob Bunch, the station’s interim general manager. “We are deeply saddened by this news and our thoughts and prayers are with Bob’s family and friends as they deal with this difficult time.”
Lewis leaves behind his wife Madaline, five children and seven grandchildren.
Jim Bailey, who worked at WJHL with Lewis for seven years, had good memories of Lewis.
“Bob was a kind-hearted individual,” Bailey said. “He was more about being a friend than a colleague. He was a true gentleman.”
During his time with WJHL Lewis did a little bit of everything. He worked as a cameraman, announcer, morning anchor, noon anchor and news director.
While working at WJHL, he made a lot of friends. He also was pivotal in bringing in many of the current staff at WJHL.
“Bob was the heart of this TV station for more than four decades,” current evening news anchor Josh Smith said in a news release. “He hired many of us, shared his coffee with us, and lived life along side us and we are heartbroken he is gone.”
Lewis was known around WJHL for his coffee. Former WJHL news director Christine Riser told the Johnson City Press in 2007 that Lewis was somebody “that you loved having around” and that he would always be at work in the morning making coffee.
He was also known for being light-hearted in the work place. Riser explained in 2007 that he would walk across the newsroom, stop and do a random Elvis move and then keep going without saying a word.
When he retired in 2007, he told the Johnson City Press he wasn’t sure what he would be doing.
“For now, I’ll be doing what I do best–nothing,” Lewis said. “I don’t know if I want to do anything. I’ll sit in my rocker on my front porch and think about it.”
He didn’t have to think for long. He got his band back together, known as the Bob Lewis Band, about a year after he retired. Lewis played in many different bands until finally forming The Bob Lewis Band around 1975. The band played in different spots around the area until their final performance on New Year’s Eve 1983.
After nearly 30 years on hiatus, a former member of the band had an idea for a reunion show.
“Paul Gschwind is on the committee for the Johnson County Fair, and he got the idea to get this band together after 30 years,” Lewis told the Press in 2008. “At first I thought he was crazy. A couple of the guys had played music regularly over the years, but most of us haven’t played much in a long time.”
Danny Lewis played in the Bob Lewis Band for the past three years. He has known Lewis for the past 40 years and remembers the passion he had for music.
“We called him the lead dog,” Danny said. “He had such a passion for music. He always wanted it right, whether it was practice or a show. He always wanted to be professional about it.”
Lewis played the drums, but could play a lot of different instruments. He also sang background vocals on songs.
Danny is not related to Lewis, but said after knowing him for so long they could be brothers. The last time he saw Lewis was last week and said he was hurting, but wanted to get better and come back to play. Danny still has his equipment in his house and Lewis told him that they could use his equipment.
Danny will miss his friend.
“He was the finest person I’ve ever known,” he said. “I personally have never known a better person.”
The Bob Lewis band played a mix of country, classic rock, saxophone songs and of course Elvis Presley. In the band’s heyday, they were regulars on the local music scene, playing venues like the Ambassador Lodge and the old Holiday Inn. Lewis didn’t hide his talent from coworkers.
“Bob was a good friend and a great mentor,” Bailey said. “He was as talented behind a set of drums as he was behind a news desk.”
The news desk is where Lewis started to build his legacy in Northeast Tennessee. Over the years, people have referred to him as a “legend,” a “hero,” a “man of integrity” and “the Walter Cronkite of this area.”
When Lewis retired, WJHL dedicated the entire 5:30 p.m. newscast to his career. The station normally dedicates that time to news around the nation. The show featured clips of Lewis’ work, including a blooper reel and comments from colleagues past and present, friends and the competition.
Jack Dempsey, WJHL’s former general manager and now vice president/general manager of Bonten Media group, which oversees WCYB and WEMT among others, will remember Lewis not for the news, but for the man he was.
“He was so much more than a news anchor,” Dempsey said. “He was unique. He had so many challenges, health wise, but he was always cheering people up...He was always a source of encouragement. Johnson City lost a fine citizen.”