When Gaston Lewis came to Wilberforce University as a student in the early 1920s he worked on the school farm to help pay for his education.
He had grown up on a farm in Caesarscreek Township. His roommate, from Chicago, asked what part of Ohio Gaston was from and when he discovered he was not a ‘big city boy,” refused to room with a country kid. This was when Gaston Lewis became forever known as “Country.” He and his roommate eventually became fast friends and played baseball with Country as the pitcher and the Chicago friend as the catcher.
In 1926, he became head football coach at Alabama State Teachers College. While he was there, the budgeted amount for sports was very small, so he managed to get an old school bus and a friend who had a small band. As they would travel from game to game, the band would play for a dance. The revenue received helped pay for the football uniforms and other necessities.
From there, he went on to Columbia University where he studied for his master’s degree. For a while he played professional baseball for the Negro National League, then went on to finish his master’s degree at The Ohio State University where he was a friend of Woody Hayes.
Upon completing his education, he came again to Wilberforce University, this time as the head football and basketball coach and professor of physical education from 1934 to 1947. When Central State University began an athletic program, he accepted the position of professor and coach at Central State University. He was appointed Director of Athletics at that institution in 1957.
Country had the ability to identify a good athlete simply by the way he walked across the campus. He would inquire as to whether the student had played sports in high school, and usually the answer was affirmative.
He recruited several of his best players in this manner. He was called a truly great man in college athletics. It was said he could take a good talent and make it great or an average talent and make it good.
He always took great pride in the accomplishments of his students, both on the field and academically, and followed their careers throughout his life. When Country was not teaching in the classroom, he was coaching. He was best known as a football coach, but also coached basketball, track and baseball. He stated that he had no favorite sport.
Country, also known as “Dad” by some of his players, was well-respected in collegiate athletics throughout the country. His track teams won again and again, and his best season as a football coach was an 11-1 record in 1947. The team played coast to coast at major stadiums in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. The teams played to the best of their ability to please their coach.
Country was selected as manager for the track and field competition of the 1967 Pan-American Games held in Winnipeg. He was also chosen to be the assistant track coach for the 1968 U. S. Olympic team which competed in Mexico City.
Following his retirement in 1972, other honors were accorded. In 1983, he was invited to Washington D. C., where he received an award from the Washington D. C. Pigskin Club for his long and distinguished service in the field of athletics. The club honored several prominent figures for long years of service and contributions to sports.
His peers knew Gaston was an excellent teacher in the classroom, on the athletic field and in everyday living. He was a quiet man who wanted the best for his students.
At the time of his death, he was considered the senior African American athletic director and coach.
This man was so respected that Wilberforce University named the gymnasium in the new Alumni Complex in his honor.
Central State University also honored his memory by renaming the Beacon gymnasium, now known as the Beacon-Lewis gymnasium.
He died in 1989 at the age of 86, well-respected and loved by those who knew him. His final resting place is in Wilmington at the Sugar Grove Cemetery. His tombstone reads “Gaston F. Lewis ‘Country’ 1903-1989.” The stone features a carved football and a stopwatch, certainly appropriate to remember this man who meant so much to the football and track teams of two Greene County universities.
Of course, no history of Country is complete without his wife who was also involved in the physical education programs.
Next week, you will hear about Dr. Vivian Lewis, also a graduate of Wilberforce University whom he met in 1939 while she was a student. They married in 1950. Country said “We just struck up a friendship. We’ve always been very comfortable with one another.” In spite of the age difference between the two, they became quite a team. For a while, she held the position of Director of Athletics, meaning that he was part of her staff.
CSU Director of Information Services Ed Chamness said “They were probably the strongest influence in building the intercollegiate athletic program in health, physical education and recreation at CSU”
Joan Baxter is a resident and long-time historical columnist.