FRIENDS and family of William “Homer” Lewis knew he had a heart of gold and would do anything for anyone.
But it wasn’t until his funeral that they realized the extent of his service to the nation in the dark hours after 9/11—and how his work exposed him to elements that eventually caused his death.
Lewis died of cancer April 3 at age 51. He was father to 16-year-old Sarah Elizabeth; big brother to Dinah Taylor and David Lewis; longtime love of Cheryl Dickinson; electronics technician to his co-workers at the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ finance and facilities division; and friend to many who knew him by his ever-present smile.
Those who grew up with him in King George County couldn’t have realized his efforts in rescue and recovery efforts in the days after terrorists crashed a plane into the Pentagon.
His family and close friends didn’t even know, until a big black bus, loaded with men and women in suits, showed up at his funeral services. FBI Director Christopher Wray expressed his condolences during Lewis’ wake, and Deputy Director David Bowdich was one of several speakers at his funeral.
“We sat there in shock,” said longtime family friend Veronica Cox, who lives about half a mile from where Lewis did. “Apparently, they were unable to get communications set up [after the attack], and he was asked if he could go in and set it up, and he went way beyond the line of duty or the FBI could not have investigated it without him.”
And nobody in his family had any idea about how highly he was regarded by FBI officials and co-workers, who praised his smile and positive attitude, hard work and determination.
“We did not realize we had a hero living among us,” Cox said. “We were all blown away with the way the FBI, local first-responders and Sheriff’s Office paid respects to him.”
She said she wished I could have known him. I wished I could have covered the funeral—to see the FBI honor guards who stood near his casket and bagpipe player who performed “Amazing Grace.” I didn’t learn about the service until the day it was happening, and schedules were already full.
But what stuck in my mind about Homer Lewis was that people who loved him for his kindness and generous spirit didn’t have the first inkling of his work among agents and surveillance.
“If you had known him, he was the least likely person” you’d think of being involved with FBI bigwigs, Cox said. “He was so humble.”
Friends and neighbors probably envisioned him on the tractor, working the fields at his family’s Summit Hill Farm. Or they recalled when he moved in with his parents, William James and Margaret Lewis, to help with their care before he died.
I wonder how many times the same scenario plays out among the thousands of federal workers from our region who slog away at jobs at the nation’s capital. How many are involved in high-risk operations and undercover assignments? How often do our neighbors and fellow commuters rise to the occasion when their country and colleagues need them?
The FBI National Press Office announced Lewis’ line-of-duty death. It said he worked with teams on the night shift for weeks after 9/11, setting up and maintaining radio communications.
“He was instrumental in the recovery efforts,” the press release said, “keeping FBI team members safe inside the Pentagon and at surrounding evidence-review locations.”
Through it all—including the cancer that was found first in his lymph nodes then spread to his organs—he kept a smile on his face, said his sister.
Lewis was diagnosed in early 2018, and his sister took him to chemo treatments once a week. That’s the only time he missed from the FBI, until the disease progressed in late January.
For days after the treatment, he carried a black bag, with a strap across his chest, that pumped more chemicals into his system. He wore the bag at work, on the tractor, when he and Sarah went on vacation.
“He did his best to maintain a normal life,” his sister said, “and not very many people knew he had cancer because, to him, this was just another hurdle to jump over.”