Potsdam track pioneer Lewis dies at 83

Chris Lenney/WDTFormer Potsdam Central boys track coach Bill Lewis, pictured here addressing friends and family during a ceremony dedicating the school district’s track and field facility in his honor, passed away in Syracuse this past Tuesday.

POTSDAM - As a ninth-grader at Potsdam High School in the mid-1960’s, Steve Barlow’s athletic career had reached a crossroads.

He’d been cut from the baseball team and faced the real possibility of suffering the same fate the following season in basketball.

Enter varsity boys track coach Bill Lewis.

“I wasn’t a star by any means but I thought I was pretty good. When I didn’t make the baseball team as a freshman, it dawned on me that maybe I would get cut from basketball too. We had sports signups in the spring and Mr. Lewis came up to me and told me to maybe give track a try. Back then, we had eighty-to-ninety kids on the team and track didn’t cut so, I figured, why not?” said Barlow.

Under coach Lewis’s guidance, Barlow became a leading contributor to Section 10 championship teams as an outstanding long jumper and triple jumper through to his senior year in 1967 and the lessons learned from being a member of the Sandstoner track program served as a major source of inspiration through the rest of his life.

“I often say that I could have just as easily ended up in jail and not in all the positive places that I’ve been if it hadn’t been for coach Lewis. Absolutely, he inspired me. And, I’m not alone,” Barlow noted. “A lot of us considered Mr. Lewis as a second father. We think of each other as being ‘Bill’s boys’ and we wouldn’t be where we are if it weren’t for him.”

Mr. Lewis passed away on Tuesday at the age of 83 at the Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse and a celebration of his life is scheduled for this Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Potsdam First United Methodist Church. Calling hours at the Donaldson-Seymour Funeral Home are slated for Friday from 4-7 p.m. and Saturday from 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. Burial services are set for Monday at 10 a.m. at Bayside Cemetery in Potsdam.

“Mr. Lewis was just such a well-balanced type of guy. He was very strong, spiritually, and his big thing when it came to coaching was to let each become all they’re capable of being. We had big teams back then but I’ll always remember how he would make sure to talk to each and every kid before every meet. He made every person on the team feel important because, to him, everybody was important,” noted Barlow.

“Over the years, I communicated with him on a regular basis. A few weeks ago, we talked on the phone and he was excited about the Potsdam girls track team winning the Section 10 championship,” noted Barlow. “Whenever I was going through a tough time, whether it was as a coach or something more personal, he was always there to talk things out and those talks always helped me. I can’t make that call anymore and that’s going to be tough.”

A native of Utica, Mr. Lewis graduated from Holland-Patent High School in 1954 and went on to earn his bachelor and master’s degrees in education from St. Lawrence University. He then taught physical education before eventually serving as guidance counselor at Potsdam High School and A.A. Kingston Middle School from 1965-1992. He took over the track program at Potsdam in 1963 and went on to amass an incredible record of 107 wins and only three losses until he stepped down as varsity coach following the 1974 season.

At one stretch during his career, Mr. Lewis coached the Sandstoners to 85 straight dual meet victories, 10 consecutive league banners and nine straight Section 10 championships. Ironically, Barlow helped coach the OFA squad that halted the Sandstonter sectional dynasty in 1974.

“John Bramhall was the head coach and I was co-coach at the time. We had such a powerful team in 1974 and Mr. Lewis knew the streak was going to end,” noted Barlow. “He was very happy for us.”

In May of 2016, the newly-renovated state-of-the-art track and field facility at Potsdam Central was dedicated to Mr. Lewis and a large chuck of sandstone bearing a plaque with his likeness was unveiled at the entrance.

“Mr. Lewis didn’t start the track program at Potsdam but he did start the winning program there,” noted Barlow. “I know he played football and he was a very good athlete. I don’t even think that he was a track guy before he came to Potsdam but he worked very hard on learning about what he was going to teach.”

“I’m pretty sure he was one of the first track coaches around to use film to help teach kids proper technique. He used to go around with an eight-milimeter camera and all the kids loved seeing the films when they came back from the developer. I can also remember that he didn’t have a very big budget and one time, a couple of the guys on the team had weights that they wanted to donate to the team and Mr. Lewis set them up in a room downstairs at the school. That became our weightroom and he had everyone lifting weights, which was something different for track teams,” Barlow added. “He really was way ahead of himself in a lot of ways.”

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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