Billy Gene Lewis is the recipient of the Pioneer Heritage Award for his life story presented at the Pemiscot County Historical Society meeting held on Sept. 25, 2009.
My name is Billy Gene Lewis. I was born at home on a farm south of Dell on Sept. 8, 1933, right in the middle of The Great Depression. I was the firstborn of Cuthbert and Mabel Simpson Lewis. Three more brothers followed, Bert, Richard and Wayne. All are still alive except Wayne who died in infancy of diphtheria in 1942. I think my dad was really thrilled to have me come along in 1933 when times were hard and money scarce.
My father's family consisted of seven brothers and three sisters. His people came to Mississippi County from Potts Camp, Miss., to work timber. His paternal grandfather was a timber foreman for the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company. He had the foresight to purchase several hundred acres of cut over timberland around the Lost Cane Community for $2 per acre. He later became quite wealthy in land rental and the cotton business. Most of his family, including mine were farmers.
My mother's family consisted of four brothers and seven sisters. I have over 40 cousins, most are still living today. My mother's people came to the Dell area from Dewitt. They were farmers and raised cotton and corn. Grandpa Simpson served many years as a deputy sheriff for Mississippi County Sheriff, William Berryman, of Blytheville. He was known as Squire Simpson.
We lived south of Big Lake in a community named Lost Cane.
Lost Cane got its name because in the early years there were enormous cane brakes all over the fertile land that had been cleared of its fine timber. There were actually persons who became lost in the cane. Today, there is no cane, only cotton, beans, and rice.
We were really rural and the only work was on the farms growing cotton and corn. Lost Cane was a typical agricultural community of its day. We were five miles to a hard road -- Highway 18, which was narrow and dangerous. The rest was primarily dirt, but gravel was spread on the county roads in the 1940's. We had a church, grocery store, school, and a nearby cotton gin.
My father farmed 80 acres of his father's land with mules and a couple of hired hands. The work was hard and long. Dad had to grow a lot of cotton because his father owned a cotton gin and the company store. My mother's grocery shopping consisted of sending a list by my Dad to the store, which was run by his brother for his dad. Credit was what fed us through the winter. My dad, along with most of the farmers, got his furnish on the first of March to be used to make their upcoming crop. By the time he paid his debt at the company store, he had very little left. Times finally got better in the 1940's when we got electricity and a Farmall tractor. Dad always "laid by" the crop on the Fourth of July -- regardless of the grass and weeds. Round-up was only a dream!
In the Lost Cane community, we only had one church, a Missionary Baptist Church. My mother saw to it that we all, except my Dad, went to church every Sunday. We had to walk about a mile and a half to church if we didn't catch a ride with some of our neighbors. I joined the Lost Cane Church in the fall revival in 1945. I was batptized along with 18 others n Little River. We didn't have a fancy baptistery at that time. They do now! At that time our church had none of the things for comfort control. We at least had electricity and path out back. We had about 70 in attendance each Sunday, but today the church has 10 or 12 regular members. What a shame. The church looks like a model church, but the people disappeared as mechanization came to farming. I am still proud of that church. It did a great work for the furtherance of God's kingdom.
I was educated from the first through the eighth grades at Lost Cane. There was no such thing as kindergarten. I rode a bus over mostly gravel roads to Manila to attend the ninth through 12th grades. I couldn't participate in sports because I would have had to walk the nine miles home. I didn't get a car until I earned the money to pay for it. My dad let me have a small soybean crop in exchange for my doing all his tractor driving. The crop earned me $400 and I went to Loy Eich Chevrolet in Blytheville and bought a $400 car. It was a black four door 1939 Chevy. It was a good car for its time. I learned to be a fair mechanic because I had to do my own repairs.
My first trip out of Arkansas was to Millington Naval Air Station. One of my favorite uncles, a career naval officer, was stationed there. He had two children who were about the age of my brother and me. This was a great experience of us. The first thrill was crossing the Harahan Bridge over the Mississippi River at Memphis. I remember the wooden planking that was the roadway and it was all built on the side of the railroad bridge. (Little did I know that about 20 years later I would be coming back to Arkansas from California, and I got to drive my own car across the new modern bridge.) On that trip to Millington, my uncle took us to the Huddle House in Memphis. I never dreamed such a place existed, and my uncle was thrilled to see the excitement in a couple of country boys' eyes. Later on as we visited on the base, I saw my first golf club. I teed off and unfortunately my brother was standing behind me. My great swing hit him in the head, and it took 10 stitches to close his head wound.
I graduated from Manila High School in 1951. My plans were to farm with my dad in 1952. However, one of my cousins was about to be drafted in the Army and he asked me to join the Navy with him. I asked my dad what he thought about it, and he gave me his blessing. Dad had previously served four years in the Navy. I really had never been out of Mississippi County very much so I saw it as a great adventure and sure enough it was.
The Korean War was going on, and after recruit training, I as assigned to a heavy cruiser. I spent my first year in the Navy helping load 8" naval guns to shell the coast of North Korean. From there I was assigned to Adak, Alaska, where I spent a year. It was a very fast year and I enjoyed my work as a personnel man. Then I was assigned to a submarine squadron stationed in San Diego, Calif. I had a lot of free time so I got a job in a small plant on shore. I earned enough money in my year there to buy a new Olds 88. I was discharged from the service there and came home to Lost Cane in style. I got to drive my first trip across the new Mississippi River bride! In all, the Navy was good to me. I still don't know why I didn't make a career of the Navy.
I came home in January, 1956, and enrolled at Arkansas State University at Jonesboro in the spring of 1956. I carried a full load of classes in the regular and summer schools. I graduated from ASU with a B.S. Degree in Business Administration in three years and received a graduate assistant scholarship at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. I attended there for one year and earned a Master's Degree. In the fall of 1959 I came to Steele as a classroom teacher. I taught commerce and English and later became the high school principal in 1962. Three years later I became superintendent of schools. However, before I could become superintendent, I had to have an advanced degree so I commuted two nights a week to Ole Miss, plus going to summer school. This was quite a challenge. Looking back when I thin about it, if it hadn't been for the G.I. Bill I probably would have ended up being a farmer.
In 1957 I married Inez Whitney. She was a teacher and was my inspiration to become a teacher. We have been married 52 years. We had a daughter, Jeanne, in September of 1959. We had the split term for cotton picking vacation back then. After Jeanne's birth, Inez became a teacher in the Steele School system teaching physical education for girls for several years. Later, Inez became the school librarian. Looking back, those were some happy days. We loved the community, and they loved us back. Inez and Jeanne were the wind beneath my wings. They were always there for me.
Changes came about in our school in 1964. We reorganized with the Holland Schools and also became totally integrated. The school was renamed South Pemiscot. We also did away with split term.
When I first became superintendent, we had about eight rundown buses, all with manual transmissions. Back then we had about 1,600 kids in the system. Now we have about 700. With the interest the district earned on investments at the bank, we were able to purchase one school bus each year -- complete with automatic transmission. We also used money to put air conditioning in all the classrooms.
Mr. and Mrs. Lewis retired in 1988. He likes to stay busy and is involved in his church and community. They have been members of the First Baptist Church in Steele since 1960 and he served as deacon and trustee and has been the church treasurer since 1989. He served as Sunday School teacher for 42 years.
Their daughter died last year at the age of 49. She left them with three wonderful grandchildren, John Lewis Pasmore, Andrew Dallas Pasmore, and Mari Beth Pasmore, all of Jonesboro.
Mr. Lewis is a member of the Steele Rotary Club and has held every office and currently serves as the secretary-treasurer. He has been the chairman of the Board of Bank Star of the Bootheel for the last 12 years. He is president of the Bootheel Investment Club and also serves on the Pemiscot Port Authority, the Pemiscot Initiative Network Board, and the Southeast Missouri Baptist Association.
He had a farm at Rector that gave them a getaway from the pressures of his job while he was superintendent. They built a house and had plans to move there after retirement, but decided to stay close to their church and friends. They sold the farm to former students.
"I have been blessed with a good life and am thankful to God for this," Lewis said. "Thanks to the Pemiscot county Historical Society for the honor of being chosen to receive this award."