As writer, as friend, Lewis will be missed

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By The Staff

From the time he was a youngster growing up in Trenton, N.J., Claude Lewis knew two things with certainty.

First, he was going to live in Florida and second, he was going to write for a newspaper.

Those two dreams came to fruition, but not in that order.

But dreams often end, and last Friday on his way to cover an Indian football game in his role as sports editor for the Chiefland Citizen, Claude died at the age of 54, apparently after suffering an asthma attack.

While sorting through memorabilia this week for display at his memorial service, his wife of 21 years, Michelle Balbier-Lewis and his mother Helen Lewis Saidt found a drawing that Claude drew as a very young child.

On art paper and done in crayon, it shows Claude driving an airboat. The word "Everglades" is written on the side of the boat.

At the age of 12, along with his brother John, Claude reported, wrote and peddled a newspaper to the folks in the neighborhood.

One piece of investigative reporting by the one-day journalist detailed someone's woes with getting into the bathroom at their home. A comprehensive schedule outlined who was using the bathroom and for how long. Each story bore the UPI dateline because even then, he dreamed big.

His first dream came true in 1982 when he landed his first job with the Trentonian.

After marrying Michelle in 1987, the couple moved to Florida, satisfying his second dream and launching what would become a stellar career in journalism.

Working first in public relations with the Charlotte County Speedway where he became lifelong friends with Leroy Davidson, he then joined the Charlotte Sun Herald and later the Venice Gondolier Sun.

In 2006 he moved to Chiefland, where Michelle said he at last felt at home. Six months later, he became a sports writer with the Citizen.

Throughout his career he won numerous awards for writing, photography and column writing.

With his baggy cargo shorts, mullet hairstyle and T-shirts with wildlife pictures, Claude was a common sight at sporting events, the state parks and Hart Springs Park.

He loved covering school events and never said no when someone called asking for coverage.

"He really believed that all children should participate in sports," Michelle said Monday. "He felt that not only would it help physically, it would also provide the basis for a well-rounded life. He was saddened there wasn't a wrestling program here at the schools."

On days or afternoons off, it was commonplace for Claude to jump in his truck and head to Manatee Springs, where he frolicked in the water or lazed on a bench with something to read.

"It was so beautiful and peaceful at the park yesterday afternoon," he said Thursday morning. "It was just me and two other people. There's nothing like going there with a good book just to take it easy."

And if the temperature dropped below 55 degrees, Claude would don his solitary pair of long jeans and his beloved Jacksonville Jaguar sweatshirt and long for the sweltering days of summer.

"He was an astute observer of the human condition," his sister-in-law Denise Balbier said Sunday. "He never conformed to what society deemed correct. He rejected the traditional societal norms and embraced who he was and accepted people for who they were."

Michelle agreed. "He marched to his own drummer," she said.

"And sought things that fed his soul," Michelle said. In addition to the intangible nurturing, he also loved barbecue, oysters and chocolate, she said.

"And don't forget NASCAR. He loved NASCAR," she added.

Claude also believed in people and sought ways through his stories to change people's lives. Whether profiling an up-and-coming rapper or detailing some sort of perceived injustice, he was there to champion the individual and to let them know someone cared.

Those who knew him best said he never complained, was always happy and was loyal to a fault - a genuine nice guy who believed the best in everyone.