Tom Lewis, One of 'Catonsville Nine,' Dies After Life of Activism

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The Baltimore Sun

Tom Lewis, One of 'Catonsville Nine,' Dies After Life of Activism

by
Tom Pelton

Forty years ago next month, Tom Lewis and eight other Vietnam War protesters strode into the offices of U.S. Selective Service Board 33 in Catonsville and left a mark on history.0406 01 1 2

The "Catonsville Nine" emptied file cabinets, hauled 600 draft records into the parking lot and burned them with homemade napalm. Then they prayed and waited to be arrested.

That act of civil disobedience on May 17, 1968, inspired headlines - and more than 200 protests at draft board offices across the country. The tone of Vietnam War protests changed, becoming angrier and more intense as the war dragged on for seven more years.

Mr. Lewis' activism on behalf of peace continued through the rest of his life, ending only Friday, when he died in his sleep at his home in Worcester, Mass., at the age of 68. He might have suffered heart failure, said his brother, Don Lewis, although the medical examiner's office has not declared a cause of death.

"It was a calling for him to take a stand about what he saw wrong in the world," said Don Lewis, 72, a retired science teacher who lives in Hampstead. "It was a way of life - there were things going wrong, and he had to make a statement about it."

Tom Lewis was part of a famed group of Catholic anti-war activists led by Philip and Daniel Berrigan, both priests. The trial of the Catonsville Nine would land Mr. Lewis in prison for more than three years - and become the subject of a play and a movie.

Five of the Catonsville Nine are still living - Daniel Berrigan, Thomas and Marjorie Melville, John Hogan and George Mische.

Tom Lewis had been scheduled to appear in Baltimore on May 8 at a 40th-anniversary commemoration that is to feature a movie titled Investigation of a Flame by Lynne Sachs at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson in Highlandtown.

Despite Mr. Lewis' death, the event will go on, said Megan Hamilton, an organizer of the Creative Alliance.

"The Catonsville Nine took everything one step further, and they radicalized the anti-war movement in America. It went from a peaceful, wholly nonviolent movement to actually destroying the machinery of the war machine," she said.

Mr. Lewis was also a member of the "Baltimore Four," a group that poured blood on draft records at a city Selective Service office in October 1967.

He continued his activism for four decades, even after he moved to Massachusetts in the 1970s. He picketed the White House recently to express opposition to the Iraq war, and he was arrested in 2005 outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington in a protest against genocide in Darfur.

"His commitment to justice and peace flowed out of his love and art, and began with civil rights, continued with opposition to the Vietnam War, and the nuclear arms race, and the current U.S. war in Iraq," said a longtime friend, Scott Schaeffer-Duffy.

Tom Lewis was also a painter whose art portrayed his belief in peace and justice. "There are a lot of good artists, but there aren't a lot of truthful artists - and he was one of them," said Brendan Walsh, a lifelong friend and founder of the Viva House soup kitchen in Baltimore. "He combined his power as an artist and his power as a human against the forces of death."

In one of Mr. Lewis' black and white etchings, called Ghetto, a Christ figure hangs between fire escapes. In another work, Crucifixion Triptych, a cross appears to double as a black nuclear explosion crucifying mankind, according to a story in The Sun about Mr. Lewis' work.

His fellow Catonsville Nine protester, Daniel Berrigan, who was also imprisoned in the incident, wrote poetry about Tom Lewis' paintings. One poem about Crucifixion Triptych included the words "image of hell/image of our landscape/the hell we hammer/on the face of fair creation."

Elizabeth McAlister, Philip Berrigan's widow and a friend of Mr. Lewis for 40 years, said he thought it was tragic that the United States launched the Iraq war after all the errors of Vietnam. "It's more of the same," Ms. McAlister said of the two wars. "He was strongly opposed to [the invasion of Iraq], he grieved over it, like we had learned nothing from all the death and destruction in Vietnam."

Mr. Lewis was born on St. Patrick's Day in 1940, one of four children of a manager with the National Biscuit Co. (later Nabisco). The family moved several times as the father switched positions within the firm, going from Uniontown, Pa., to Cambridge, Mass., to Philadelphia, Louisville and then Baltimore.

Tom Lewis arrived here at about age 17 and graduated from Mount St. Joseph High School in 1958. He worked on a Greek freighter and went to Europe for almost a year to study drawing.

He was attracted to the protest movement in 1965 when he went to the Gwynn Oak amusement park in Baltimore to sketch civil rights demonstrators and found himself standing in a crowd that began stoning them. "He joined the protesters and never looked back," according to a profile of him in The Sun.

After spending three years at a federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., for burning draft records, Mr. Lewis moved to Massachusetts in the mid-1970s. There he devoted himself to painting, and his work was exhibited in New York, Baltimore and Boston.

He was married for more than a decade to Andrea Borbely. They divorced about five years ago.

Funeral arrangements are incomplete. The commemoration of the Catonsville Nine will be held at 7:30 p.m. May 8 at the Creative Alliance at The Patterson, 3134 Eastern Ave. in Baltimore.

Besides his brother, Mr. Lewis is survived by a 16-year-old daughter, Nora Lewis-Borbely of Springfield, Mo.; his mother, Pauline Lewis of Baltimore County; another brother, John Lewis of Livermore, Calif., and a sister, Paula Scheye of Baltimore County.

Copyright © 2008, The Baltimore Sun

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