WASHINGTON — As Army Maj. Gen. Ronald F. Lewis was receiving his second star in January, he joked that he’d come a long way for a “punk kid from Chicago.”
But his parents said their son was anything but trouble.
“He never started any fights, but he could end one,” father Richard Lewis said. “He always looked out for his younger brothers. He was that kind of guy: I don’t think he knew what fear was.”
Richard and Emma Lewis, who still live in the South Side’s Beverly neighborhood where they raised their family, received special mention from their son during his promotion ceremony at the Pentagon. The general said being their son was key because they set him on a path to success.
“They created an environment of no ceilings, no caps,” the general told The Chicago Tribune. “Achievement is what it’s about, and that’s what gets rewarded.”
Lewis, 49, the only black Army general from Chicago, is a battle-tested commander and attack helicopter pilot who served three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Of the 318 generals in the active-duty Army, 34 are black. They include three who have four stars — notably, Lloyd Austin III, leader of Central Command — plus three with three stars, 16 like Lewis with two stars, and 12 with a single star.
Lewis was born in Kittery, Maine, while his father wrapped up 12 years in the Air Force. The father, a sergeant at the old Pease Air Force Base, worked on B-47s and B-52s as a bomb navigation technician, before leaving in 1966 for Chicago, where he had a job waiting at AT&T.
Ronald Lewis was not even 2 years old when his parents, natives of Mississippi, adopted Chicago as their home. The father spent 25 years with the phone company and began substitute teaching for Chicago Public Schools, where he still teaches a couple days a week.
His son was an athletic and mechanically oriented Boy Scout and a “good Christian boy,” his father said. The family attended Seventh Presbyterian Church, and the parents still do.
Lewis graduated from Vanderpoel Elementary School in Chicago and ran track and was a top student at the old Mendel Catholic Preparatory High School before heading to West Point.
His father said he created financial incentives to encourage the couple’s five children to get good grades.
“You got a dollar for an A, 50 cents for a B and you got nothing for a C but chewed out: ‘Why didn’t you do better?’” Richard Lewis, 80, said. “We set high standards for our kids and we spent time with them.”
Emma Lewis, 77, said her son learned to read before starting school. He loved building and fixing things, and when he entered science fairs, “if he was not the winner, he was second,” she said.
She was a stay-at-home mom until she began hosting Tupperware parties, becoming a manager for the company. She now is retired.
The parents said they had rules: Their children couldn’t use the phone, watch TV or invite friends over for backyard basketball until completing their homework.
Gen. Lewis recalled his Chicago years in an interview at his Pentagon office, which is chock with military coins, battle flags and other colorful memorabilia — including a tribute from a military unit with the motto “Too Tough to Die.”
He recalls learning to ski at Alpine Valley Resort in Wisconsin and going to a church-run summer camp in Michigan.
He said his first job — selling men’s clothing at the old Henry C. Lytton & Co. store in Evergreen Plaza — gave him enough money to fuel up his father’s gas guzzler, a 1977 Chrysler New Yorker.
The general is married with two children, including a son, R.J., who attends East-West University in Chicago and tends bar in the Hyde Park neighborhood.
When he arrived at West Point in 1983, he said he and other cadets aspired to be infantry soldiers, having a tough-guy mindset: “You’ve got to be a Special Forces-Airborne-Ranger snake eater.”
But while studying mechanical engineering, a mentor steered him to aviation, which looked “pretty dang-on good,” the general said. Now he’s a master aviator with about 2,200 flight hours, about 1,000 of those in combat.
The general is big on team-building. For every two pilots who jump into an Apache helicopter, he observed, there are about eight other soldiers performing tasks, such as arming, refueling, intelligence-gathering, running a command post and maintaining ground vehicles.
Lewis tries to get the “most and best out of everyone” on his team by listening and making sure soldiers know they’re appreciated. “I prefer to have people not want to let the team down,” he said, “as opposed to fearing, ‘I’m going to get hammered if I don’t do this.’ ”
Having worn a uniform since he was 17 years old, he said he is proudest for “leading America’s sons and daughters, having the opportunity to train them up, to care for them, to provide just good mentorship and good leadership for them, and then take them to combat.”
His first combat tour was in Iraq during 2004-2005, a time marked by bloody insurgencies. A lieutenant colonel with the 1st Cavalry Division, he commanded a battalion of 500 troops and 48 helicopters, both Apaches and Kiowa Warriors.
“He personally led in all our major battles in Najaf, in Fallujah, in Sadr City,” said Lt. Gen. James McConville, his commanding officer on all three deployments. “He’s just the complete officer when it comes to leading soldiers in combat.”
Lewis was at Taji airfield in Iraq when another helicopter pilot, Tammy Duckworth, was whisked out on a Medevac after her Black Hawk was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in November 2004. Duckworth, who lost both her legs in the attack, is now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Chicago’s northwest suburbs.
In 2006-2007, Lewis received a master’s in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College.
He left the states in 2008 for a year in Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division, commanding a brigade with about 5,000 soldiers and about 200 aircraft, including helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and unmanned vehicles.
In 2013, he returned for another year in Afghanistan, still fighting a stubborn insurgency, as a deputy commanding general with the 101st Airborne. Its mission was to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces as the U.S. shrank its footprint.
Lewis said he commanded about 18,000 troops at the start and about 8,000 when the deployment ended last February.
“It was a very tough job, training and assisting a foreign army and trying to build the Afghan army out of the history of Afghanistan,” retired Gen. Dick Cody said. “That’s a job we give to guys who have the maturity and toughness and street smarts to get it right.”
Lewis, chief of Army public affairs since June, is the voice of what he calls the “million-person Army.” About half that number are on active duty; about 350,000 in the National Guard and 200,000 in the reserve.
McConville called Lewis “extremely competent,” adding that “he’s exactly the type of leader that we want at the highest levels of the Army.”
Lewis is now part of a small team helping a former boss, Ashton “Ash” Carter, prepare to take the reins of the Defense Department. The team is introducing Carter to key senators and preparing him for his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday.
Cody, a former Army vice chief of staff who met Lewis years ago and remains a mentor, saluted his protege’s military know-how, leadership skills and lack of ego.
“He’s always focused on taking care of his troops and his unit,” Cody said. “He wasn’t worried about the next rung on the ladder. He was worried about doing the right thing every day.”
“I think the sky’s the limit with this fellow,” Cody added. “He’s that talented.”
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC