John L. Lewis, a champion of community engagement whose NIU career spanned nearly four decades, and whose work will live on through myriad economic development initiatives, died Friday, May 13, in Chicago. He was 71.
Lewis retired from NIU in June of 2014 as senior research scholar for health and information technologies, a role in which he also was the grant co-principal investigator for the Illinois Health Information Technology Regional Extension Center (IL-HITREC).
He also headed iFiber, provider of extremely high speed (up to 1Gb) network transport services to the public and private sector. Construction of the $69 million iFiber Broadband Project was completed Dec. 31, 2013.
“John was a driving force behind this division’s focus on regional development and engagement. His many connections with state agency staff and municipal officials led to multiple projects and ongoing partnerships,” said Anne Kaplan, vice president of NIU’s Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development.
“He believed in the public purposes of public higher education,” Kaplan added, “and his career sets a high standard for like-minded colleagues.”
From 2004 until 2011, he served as associate vice president for what then was known as the Division of Administration and University Outreach, leading a team of professionals in building partnerships that provide support services, research and entrepreneurial solutions to regional issues.
Lewis became a senior research associate at the NIU Center for Governmental Studies (CGS) in 1991, climbing to associate director two years later. He delivered numerous community and economic development projects, health care research and data mapping services to community stakeholders.
Working with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, now called the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, he led the CGS team in building the Land of Lincoln’s five-year development strategy in the late 1990s.
He also created a baseline economic development study with strategies for economic growth in northwest Illinois, frequently participated in Rockford community planning and helped to attract new industry to Rockford.
Lisa Bergeron, associate director of CGS and director of both IL-HITREC as well as Health & Technology Initiatives for NIU Regional Development, worked closely with Lewis on several initiatives.
“John had a unique ability to create synergies where little existed, pull together competing interests and build initiatives that served NIU, the region and the state,” Bergeron said.
Michael T. Peddle, an associate professor in the NIU Department of Public Administration, collaborated extensively with Lewis over the last 25 years, including the advisement of local governments and other organizations on economic development, revenue structure, management and more.
Lewis “was always looking out for opportunities for CGS and for NIU in general,” Peddle says.
“Much of John’s legacy was developed through his ability to put together effective teams for our economic development and strategic planning work. He shared his contacts and connections and made sure that colleagues like myself and Carol Zar gained the faith and confidence of the key players in state and regional economic development that John had already earned,” Peddle says.
“Through his leadership, CGS became the ‘go to’ resource for many major and influential agencies and organizations at the state and regional level,” he adds. “The region would look very different today but for the leadership and energy of John.”
Born Jan. 29, 1945, in Galesburg, Ill., Lewis held a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He earned a master’s degree in economics from Western Michigan University and a bachelor’s in business and economics from Monmouth College.
He trained educators to teach economics from 1974 to 1987, first as director of the Center for Economic Education at Ball State University and then as executive director of the Illinois Council for Economic Education, which is now an NIU Outreach unit.
Recent years saw Lewis leading many federal and state initiatives focused on broadband infrastructure development and health information technology. He also served as an adjunct professor, teaching the economics of health care within NIU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.
Beyond campus, he was a longtime member and current chair of the Sycamore Planning Commission. The former member of the Sycamore Community Unit School District 427 Board of Education also had been serving as president of the TAILS Humane Society Board of Directors.
In 2011, he opened J. Lewis & Associates, LLC, which provided consulting assistance to organizations involved in economic development and health care.
A memorial service begins at 4 p.m. Thursday, May 26, at Butala Funeral Home and Crematory, 1405 DeKalb Ave. in Sycamore. The visitation is scheduled from 4 to 6:30 p.m. that day.