Former Fergus graduate honored for 20 years of musical service

By 
Miriam Campan
Reporter
Friday, February 5, 2021
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Surrounded by books and programs featuring Samoa and his musical accolades, Bob Lewis shares his “Tales of the South Pacific” experiences.
Photo by Miriam Campan

Under the twinkling stars of the Southern Cross, Bob Lewis spent 20 years teaching music in the South Pacific Islands of Samoa. A Fergus High School graduate, Lewis learned his love of music from his father (Clarence Lewis).  After earning his degree with a major in music, he accepted teaching positions in Guam, Minnesota, Oregon and on the Arlee Indian Reservation in Montana. In 1977, Lewis with his wife and child set their sails for warmer waters. Little did he know the move to the tropics would be more than his anticipated musical cultural exchange.

The friend and the interview
It was his friend and fellow music teacher, Ray Haugen, who encouraged Lewis to teach music in the South Pacific. Their initial friendship began in Guam during a turbulent time.
“Ray Haugen and I were both teaching in Guam when Saigon fell and the population doubled overnight with the fleeing Vietnamese,” said Lewis.
Those years behind them and his friend Haugen stationed on the Marshall Islands, Haugen spoke to Lewis on the need for music programs in the South Pacific. It wasn’t long after that Lewis received the call that would take him to another hemisphere.
“I got a call. ‘Mr. Lewis? This is Sili Atutasi from American Samoan. I would like you to come and interview for the job,’” said Lewis.

Lewis, was at the time living in Oregon and the upcoming scheduled interview was in Los Angeles. Lewis boarded a plane and met with Atutasi.
“I got the job right on the interview,” he said.
In 1977, Lewis, accompanied by his wife Rosemary and their son, prepared to board the 10 hour and 45 minute flight to the sun-filled shores of Samoa.
“I had my son, who was a third grader, at my side. We went down to the departure place where the plane to Samoa left. I could hear them . . . the Samoans were singing a hymn before boarding . . . it gave me the goosebumps. I wondered, ‘Why are you sending me to teach music when they are music?’” said Lewis.

Building on an already musical culture
Upon their arrival the family was taken to their accommodations, which would be their home for the next 20 years. The house, with walls made of screens, happened to be the first Christian Missionary established on the island.
“The temperature varied from 70 to 80 degrees and never changes much,” said Lewis.
Both Lewis and his wife were hired to teach in the local high schools. Lewis was teaching on one end of the island and his wife on the other. Impressed with his teaching ability, the president of the local college said they were interested in providing music classes at the Old Mormon College. Lewis investigated the teaching space, and found a roof that had big gaps, and mud, leaves and branches on the floor. He accepted the additional position.
“We taught at that college. I taught choir and my wife taught music, literature and theory along with some voice lessons,” said Lewis.
The first time the Lewis family attended church, the experience provided a glimpse into a culture already steeped in music and tradition. As the nearly 400 parishioners entered the sanctuary, Lewis noticed that rather than filling the pews with family, the congregation segregated themselves by age and gender.
“With little kids sitting with little kids, males were divided into two groups of young and old, and so were the women,” said Lewis.
He added, “The singing was just incredible. The minister welcomed us to the church and apologized because the service would be delivered in the Samoan language. I never realized that music and singing played such a vital role in their culture, in their churches and in everything they do.”
During his time in Samoa, Lewis ran a strict choir, delegating the female voices to soprano and alto and the male voices to bass and tenor. When the choir wanted to tour, fund-raising to travel around the South Pacific was added to the curriculum for the choir to share their culture through the power of their music.
“We were doing this together; sharing the Samoan chants that tell a folk tale, an old legend, or to communicate with God for courage. We would start off our programs with our old legends wearing traditional attire. The choir would go on to sing classic choral pieces, along with popular music played by local Samoan bands. We even did ‘The Lion King’.  That thrilled the little kids,” said Lewis.

Returning to the States
After 20 years, Lewis had to resign due to an undiagnosed illness afflicting his wife. They returned to the United States and to Lewistown.
“I came back to Lewistown with no job, and no income. The Presbyterian Church gave me a job as the church musician, and hired me as the Choir Director,” said Lewis.
His beloved wife Rosemary was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and passed away 10 years later in 2008. Lewis has since remarried and lives in Lewistown.

Recognition for a generation of musical service
“I just couldn’t believe it. I was just doing my job that I loved,” said Lewis.
Lewis and Rosemary were recently recognized for their immeasurable contribution in creating a renaissance in choral church music.
“The advancement and proliferation of new and advanced music across Tutila churches in the 1980s and 1990s were directly related to Bob’s and Rosemary’s work at the American Samoan Community College,” wrote Ken Aiono from ASCC.
On this recognition Lewis also said, “I tell people I went to Samoa to teach the people, but what I learned from the Samoan people greatly outweighs what I taught them.”

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