Stivers graduate James Lewis, one of the best gymnasts in Dayton during his high school years, will enter the school’s Hall of Fame on Sunday. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Tom Archdeacon: Stivers grad who never quit enters Hall of Fame

For just a moment, he was overwhelmed.

In his first week working the emergency room at Stouder Memorial Hospital in Troy, Dr. James Lewis suddenly had to care for two young men who were brought in unconscious and near death.

Their lives were in his hands.

“One of them had gone down through a manhole into the sewer to fix a problem and almost immediately had been overcome by the gas — it was hydrogen sulfide — and fallen into the sewage,” Lewis remembered. “His partner up on the street went down the ladder to help him and he also collapsed and fell into the sewage.”

Lewis said a first responder finally was able to carry one of the critically ill men out and another rescuer wearing an oxygen mask got the other.

“They were almost identical,” Lewis said. “Their blood pressure was 210 over 120. Their heart rates were exceedingly fast. They both had seized and were unconscious and covered in sewage.

“I was going back and forth from one guy to the other and I was getting a little discouraged because they were so ill.”

And that’s when he said he remembered the life-guiding refrain he’d first heard many years earlier when he was a young gymnast at Stivers High:

“Jimbo, get up and do it again … don’t quit. You can do it!”

The command had come from his coach, Joe Sullivan, a converted football and basketball man.

“I had been on the high bars doing giant swings where your whole body goes all the way around,” Lewis recalled. “On the horizontal bars in those days you wore these canvas-like partial gloves, otherwise you tore your palm.

“But sometimes with those grips you’d end up just flying off the bar and that’s exactly what I did. I ended up doing a backflip and hit the floor from eight feet up. I landed sitting down, straight onto the basketball court.

“Joe came over, looked down at me and said, ‘Jimbo, what happened?’

“I said, ‘Well Coach, I think I just broke my coccyx!’

“Coccyx is the medical term for your tailbone and I don’t know why, in high school, I knew that, but I did.”

Sullivan either did not know or heard something else and said incredulously:

“You broke your…what?”

As Lewis tried explaining, Sullivan instead offered the admonishment that would lift him time after time in the years to come:

“Jimbo, get up and do it again … don’t quit. You can do it.”

And that’s the thought Lewis tapped into that hectic day in the emergency room.

“I suctioned the sewage from their airways, then we intubated them, controlled their blood pressure, gave them seizure medication and finally stabilized them before they were flown to Miami Valley Hospital,” he said. “I heard both survived.

“About a year and a half later I’m leaving the hospital about dusk and a young man with a baby in his arms approached me and said, ‘You know who I am?’

“I looked at him and said, ‘Yes, you’re one of the guys I worked on that day. He said, “Yes, I am and I just want to show you my baby because if you hadn’t done what you did, this baby would not be here.’

“I’ve got to say that was a seminal moment in my professional life. And later, when I thought about it more, I thought about how Joe Sullivan had taught me to always persevere when I was down. How to just get up and keep working and something good will happen.

“Joe’s gone now, but I still think about him a lot. He’s helped me in a lot of ways in my life.”

Lewis will especially be thinking about his old coach Sunday. The gymnast-turned-doctor will be inducted into the Stivers Athletic Hall of Fame along with 13 others.

The noon celebration at the Presidential Banquet Center in Kettering will be emceed by local basketball legends Don Donoher and Bill Hosket Jr.

But the real stars of the day will be the inductees, and, as Lewis noted, Stivers itself:

“It was a place where I felt I fit in. A place where I wasn’t looked down upon because of my background. And it was through the teachers and coaches there, especially Joe Sullivan, that I found self-satisfaction and realized I really could go after my dreams.”

One of city’s best

You could say Lewis had another formative moment when he was a fifth-grader at Emerson Elementary.

“Every year a physical fitness test had to be taken by all the students and I remember I couldn’t do any chin-ups and maybe just 10 push-ups,” he said. “I was really skinny and people made a lot of fun of me.

“So I went home — we were living in half of a double on Buckeye Street then — and down in the basement there was a water pipe I could use to start doing chin-ups. Outside there was a tree I could use, too.

“And nearby was a construction site and I found an old water pipe and two cinder blocks and I took my mother’s clothesline and tied those blocks to the end of the pipe to make myself a set of barbells.

“After that I worked three hours a day for three years. I did take Sundays off, but that’s it. I ended up doing 500 push-ups a day.”

He said his parents eventually got him a set of barbells for Christmas:

“By seventh grade when they gave the test, I ended up the city champion.”

Once in high school, he became one of the city’s best gymnasts and as a senior was the City League champion on the rings.

He remembers performing with his teammates at halftime at University of Dayton basketball games, at Memorial Hall shows and even being televised by WDTN-Channel 2.

The place where Lewis really made his mark, though, was the classroom.

His parents had moved to Dayton from Leslie County in eastern Kentucky, and a hardscrabble life where work often eclipsed education.

He said his dad was taken out of school in the eighth grade and sent to work building roads in West Virginia.

“He got $10 a month and sent $9 home to his family,” Lewis said.

“My mother went to school to the 10th grade and she taught my dad to read. She’s the one who pushed education with us boys.

“I remember she saved up Green Stamps and bought a set of encyclopedias, one book at a time. And when I was young I read those books.”

Lewis was the salutatorian of the 1966 class at Stivers. He attended the University of Dayton on an academic scholarship, helped launch the school’s gymnastic club team and ended up graduating cum laude.

After teaching two years and helping coach the Fairmont East team to the state gymnastics crown in 1971, he got his master’s degree at Ohio State and then graduated summa cum laude from the OSU medical school, where he twice won the prestigious Rusoff Award for Excellence in Medicine.

Over nearly 30 years that excellence got put to the strenuous test as Lewis worked as an emergency room doctor, mostly at Stouder and St. Rita’s Hospital in Lima.

“I figure in my career I saw close to 100,000 ER patients,” the 68-year-old Lewis said. “And I can tell you this: It’s not like you see on the TV shows. It’s harder.”

Lessons learned

“You’ve got to deal with whatever comes through the door in ER,” he said. “It might be a snakebite, it might be someone with a broken neck, someone thrown through a windshield, poisoned or a drug overdose.

“And sometimes you find yourself left with a real hole in your own soul — when someone is murdered or raped or especially when a child dies.”

Along with emotional challenges there have been some unexpected physical tests, he said:

“I’ve been assaulted, called all kinds of names, spit on, vomited on, bitten and broke my finger when a guy started fighting.”

He said he often drew on the lessons he learned at Stivers — especially Sullivan’s mantra of pushing on when times are tough:

“And that’s what life is, isn’t it? It’s how you overcome obstacles.”

Lewis now works part time at clinics in Findlay and Bluffton, where he lives on a farm outside of town with his wife, Karen. As for pastimes, he belongs to the pyrotechnics guild and builds rockets and shells and fireworks for competitions.

And then there are the roses he grows. Once again it shows the influence of Sullivan, who grew and judged roses himself

“I once asked him his favorite and he said it was a Double Delight,” Lewis said. “Now I grow Double Delights, too, and they are beautiful. But they have the longest, sharpest thorns.”

Lewis started to laugh: “When I get stuck now, I think, ‘Hey Joe…thanks! Thanks a lot.’ ”

It’s something he’s said all his life and something he’ll especially say again Sunday.