08/10/11 — Retired Navy commander credits Wayne County for his successes

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Retired Navy commander credits Wayne County for his successes

By Dennis Hill
Published in News on August 10, 2011 1:46 PM

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Lewis Tew

When Lewis Tew looks back at his life, the retired Navy lieutenant commander sees past his 30 years in the Navy, the ports he visited around the world, the wars he survived, past his time as a deep-sea diver and ship's commander, and sees a small farm in Grantham, North Carolina, and the aunt who brought him up to work hard, respect others and never let hard luck get you down.

Tew, 86, lives in Gales Ferry, Conn., where he retired after the service. But until recent years, he continued to visit the old homestead in southern Wayne County, the place, he says, he learned the values that would carry him through life.

Tew was only 3 when his parents left him and his 1-year-old brother alone on their farm near Erwin. His grandfather took them in, but after his wife died the old man was unable to care for two small boys, and Lewis' brother, Tom, went to live with a neighbor. His Aunt Ida would drive over on weekends to see to it that the Lewis had a good meal, but finally she couldn't take any more.

"Louis, you have to go to school, you have no shoes and no clothes. You are coming home with me and Uncle Willie,'" he recalled her saying. She brought his grandfather along, too, Tew said.

His Aunt Ida and Uncle Willie lived on a farm in Grantham and already had eight children. But the boy and his grandfather were not a burden for Aunt Ida, Tew recalled. Everybody worked.

"She showed me how to feed the chickens and collect their eggs," he said. "Aunt Ida was a good cook. To this day I do not know how she did for all of us living on the farm ... She ran that wood stove all day long. Did all the cooking for all of us, and the cleaning. It was amazing to me. Aunt Ida was the wheel behind everything."

When Lewis was in the seventh grade, his uncle told him that he had had enough schooling (Lewis had already learned how to survey land) and that it was time to go to work full time. So the boy got behind the plow, working first for his uncle, then later for neighboring farmers.

When World War II broke out, Lewis wasn't yet 18 and Aunt Ida would not sign for him to volunteer. So he waited until he was 18 and then went to Raleigh to enlist in the Navy.

Why the Navy?

"I had seen soldiers from Fort Bragg bivouacking around the swamps in the area, and having worked on road-building crews I knew there were snakes in there. I said, 'Grandpa, don't ever let me join the Army.'"

During the war, Tew saw action in the Atlantic and the Pacific. His natural aptitude for mechanics showed and he advanced steadily. Tew left the Navy briefly, but returned and eventually rose to the rank of an officer, and commanded two ships, both submarine rescue vessels. He also became an expert deep sea diver.

He met his first wife, Ann, in New York, while he was the service. They met at Jack Dempsey's restaurant and he proposed immediately. They were married for 47 years, until she passed away from cancer.

The Tews lived in the Northeast but would always stop at the homestead on their way to Florida or other places.

"I traveled back to North Carolina for many years after and would always go to see Aunt Ida," he said. "Even when I got married and had children, I would take my wife and children to visit Aunt Ida, so they would all know who she was to me. They knew how much I loved her and what a great woman she was."

Aunt Ida lived to be nearly 100.

Tew is now remarried. He and his wife, Helen, keep in touch with his children, who live from Georgia to California. But he still has relatives living in the Grantham area. He suffered a stroke a few years back and the trip to North Carolina is harder now. He stays in touch with his Wayne County relatives by phone.

But the memories remain vivid. Tew remembers the fields, the work, the fun, and most of all, a woman who took "a little raggedy kid" and helped show him the way.