Remembering Frank J. Lewis

Early Years

Frank J. Lewis was born in Chicago on April 9, 1867 to William F. Lewis and Ellen Ford Lewis. Ellen and her husband William, a blacksmith by trade, were both Irish immigrants. They raised Frank and his nine brothers on their farm located at the corner of LaSalle and Adams.

On October 8, 1871, Chicago was ravaged by a fire of epic proportions. Four-year old Frank and his family were among the nearly 100,000 people who lost their homes to the great fire, an inferno which landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted called “the burning of the world.” Young Frank was briefly separated from his parents during the chaos and confusion spawned by the fire, which burned over three square miles of the city and lasted two straight days. He was later found with the other newly-homeless families and individuals in a nearby church. As an adult, Frank vividly recalled the smell of the straw scattered over the floor of the church, where he waited anxiously for his parents to come for him.

As a young boy, Frank developed a great desire to become a physician. He studied intensely for the profession until 1883, when his father died. At the age of 16, Frank left school and put his career plans on hold so that he could work to raise money for his widowed mother and his brothers. Among his numerous jobs, Frank began delivering the Chicago Daily News and recording policemen’s pull-box calls. He also briefly held a job as a candy mixer in a Loop ice cream parlor.

F.J. Lewis Manufacturing Company

By the time Frank was 20 years old, he had acquired a keen sense for business affairs. He learned the roofing trade from an uncle for whom he had worked for a few years in Omaha, Nebraska. While in Nebraska, Lewis married Alberta Dilley, where they had the first three of their six children.  Frank eventually returned to Chicago and set up the F.J. Lewis Manufacturing Company. The plant, located at 2513 S. Robey Street, manufactured tar, paving, and roofing products. Frank was a skilled manager and took great interest in every aspect of the company’s work.

By the early 1920s, Lewis had established himself as a well-known, incredibly successful businessman. His friends attributed this to his “terrific driving energy” and “a tireless physique likened to that of the heavyweight boxing champion Jim Jefferies.” It was said that the energetic and powerful Lewis would often scale rooftops to instruct workmen on the proper installation of the materials that his company manufactured.  

A terrible blow was delivered to Frank when his wife, Alberta, died in 1923. Despite this setback, Frank’s business successes continued throughout the Roaring Twenties as his tar products company expanded into home building and financing. Frank and his son, John, soon began the development of a 400-acre tract of land on the southeast side of Chicago on which they built 2,000 homes. It was the largest single real estate development ever in the Chicago area at the time.

Retirement

In 1927, at the age of 60, Frank sold the F.J. Lewis Manufacturing Company and retired from business life. By this time, Lewis had founded and managed a paving and roofing materials manufacturing business, served as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago for several years, held a directorship of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, built and financed the construction of hundreds of new homes, and started Providence Securities Corporation.

His retirement did not mean that he withdrew into seclusion or limited his active life – in fact, the opposite was true. It seemed as if retirement had given him even more energy to do good things. One of his sons was quoted as saying, “The Lord blessed him with the ability to work hard, nap for five minutes, and go back to work. He took his business with him always, and talked shop everywhere.”

In 1928, five years after the death of Alberta Dilley Lewis, his first wife, Lewis married 40-year-old Julia Deal, with whom he had two children. For the next 33 years of his life, the driving energy that Lewis had exhibited in his business affairs was focused in retirement on helping others.

In 1930, in cooperation with George Cardinal Mundelein of the Archdiocese of Chicago and several doctors from Loyola University, Lewis founded the Lewis Memorial Maternity Hospital in the vacant Lakota Hotel, located at 3001 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago. He paid $100,000 to have the building renovated and also purchased a few surrounding homes as residences for nurses. Dedicated to the memory of his mother, Ellen, and his late wife, Alberta, the hospital focused on childbirth and the care of newborn children.  

Involvement in the Founding of Holy Name Technical School

Back in June of 1920, Lockport siblings Michael and Frances Fitzpatrick donated 170 acres of their family farm to the Archdiocese of Chicago with the intention that the land benefit young people in need. Cardinal Mundelein gave leadership of the project to Auxiliary Bishop Bernard J. Sheil, who envisioned a school where disadvantaged youth from Chicago could receive a technical education that would provide them with the skills and experiences they could later use to make a living.

The plan for the school, which would be administered by the Archdiocese, called for donations from the Holy Name Society and other benefactors to finance the entire education of these students. The high school curriculum was meant to be rigorous and practical. Classes included religion, mathematics, physics, mechanical drawing, electricity, chemistry, and shop, among others. Archdiocesan officials, along with the Fitzpatricks, broke ground for the new school on February 9, 1931.

Understanding the importance and value of a good education, Frank J. Lewis immediately became involved in the project at the invitation of Bishop Sheil. As an industrialist, real estate developer and manufacturer, Lewis had access to tremendous resources—particularly building materials salvaged from demolished structures in Chicago. Lewis arranged for materials from these sites and other razed structures to be shipped out to the Fitzpatrick Family farm in rural Lockport where the school was to be built. Workers initially constructed three buildings with Lewis’ assistance, the first being a one-story dormitory and the second a large airplane hangar/shop building which would serve as the focal point of a technical education specifically associated within the field of aviation.

Just slightly more than a year after the groundbreaking, Lewis returned to Lockport to participate in the elaborate dedication and blessing ceremony for Holy Name Technical School, held on May 30, 1932. Newspapers estimated that 10,000 people were in attendance to officially open the new school. The following August, 15 boys began classes at Holy Name Technical School, each nominated for admission by their Chicago parish community. Although highly successful initially despite the Great Depression, operational funds often ran short. In order to keep the school open, it became necessary to depend on the generosity of others. During the 1933-34 school year, Frank Lewis constructed a building on the campus to house a new gymnasium and shops. Named the Lewis Memorial Building, it was dedicated to the memory of Frank’s son, Joseph, who was killed in Nebraska in 1931 in an aviation-related accident.

Lewis’ involvement didn’t end with the construction of the new gymnasium. In fact, he visited the campus frequently in the early years, making recommendations for improvement, many of which he financed himself. Lewis also generously donated scholarships for students and sponsored other aspects of their educational experience. In 1934, the name of the school was changed to Lewis Holy Name Technical School and then shortly thereafter to Lewis Holy Name School of Aeronautics, to reflect both Lewis’ generosity and also to place more emphasis on the aviation-related curriculum, which became the focus of the school.

By 1935, Lewis had financed a series of improvements, including streetlights, a drainage system, a 50,000-gallon water tower, an annex to the original hangar building, and several additions to the original dormitory (what is now Sheil Hall). He was also responsible for a new network of roads and sidewalks.

What drove Lewis to invest so much of his time, money and energy into making this school for disadvantaged youth a success? According to Lewis himself, “God gives a man money so he’ll share it with others. Ownership of money is stewardship. Those who have must give. And whether you have a lot or a little, you still have to give a proportionate share for the care of your fellow man.” During his lifetime, Lewis was recognized for his generosity and his commitment to his faith by the Catholic Church, and received numerous other business and educational honors.

Frank J. Lewis had a special place in his heart for the school he helped found, always remaining active in the life of the Lewis students. When the school, which had become Lewis College of Science and Technology following World War II, awarded its first bachelor’s degrees in 1952, Frank Lewis and his brother, John, attended the ceremonies in the Lewis Memorial Building to present the first four-year degrees to those 28 students. During the early 1950s, in what would serve as his last major construction project on the campus, Lewis commissioned the construction of a new, permanent chapel. The structure, completed in time for the 1954 Commencement, was named Sancta Alberta, after Frank’s first wife’s patron saint. Sancta Alberta Chapel remains the physical and spiritual heart of the campus.

By the time the new chapel was finished, Mr. Lewis was 87 years old. He continued to remain very active, spending time in his Chicago office at 231 LaSalle Street until a hip injury slowed him down. Frank died in his home on December 21, 1960 at the age of 93. Despite his death, Mr. Lewis’ commitment to education and to the young endures. His generosity, careful life-planning, and remarkable commitment to education lives on through the educational institutions to which he contributed and through the Frank J. Lewis Foundation, which his children established in his name. But of all his endeavors, it is possible that none is more significant than the technical school he helped found that would later become the Catholic, comprehensive University that we know today as Lewis University.