In 1920, Ira M. Lewis of Harkers Island was a just a few months shy of his second birthday when the U.S. Coast Guard established a new rank – Chief Petty Officer.

As life would play out, it came as no surprise to anyone in the Lewis family that Ira would not only enlist in the Coast Guard but advance to the rank of “Chief.”

In fact, he became the most celebrated Coast Guard Chief there ever was – at least in the eyes of people in Carteret County. Ira Lewis was believed to be the oldest living Coast Guard veteran in North Carolina – 101 years of age – prior to his death on Jan. 30, 2020.  

His passing was reverently reported as front-page news in the Carteret County News-Times by staff members Jackie Starkey and Megan Soult.

They quoted retired Coast Guard Vice Adm. Dean Lee as saying: “Mr. Ira Lewis was the kind of guy we would all aspire to be. He served his country and then went on to serve his community in the same fashion.

“We will all miss him, but he had a good run, and when he crossed the finish line, we all know he is with the good Lord.”

(Dean Lee was a Coast Guard captain in 2005 when he was given command of Coast Guard Sector North Carolina, based at Fort Macon. He and Chief Lewis formed an extraordinary friendship.)

Vice Adm. Lee previously noted: “Chief Lewis stepped up to enlist and to serve in 1938; he’s a member of ‘The Greatest Generation,’ and he is one of the treasured watermen.”

Watermen are the people who grew up on the eastern seaboard of the United States, an area that has produced more Coast Guardsmen than any other region. Vice Adm. Lee said: “They were willing to risk their own lives to rescue those in peril.”

Ira Lewis signed on with the Coast Guard at age 19, to be a surfman, for that was what Down East Carteret County boys-to-men were trained to do. The first of four U.S. Life-Saving Stations in the county was established on Core Banks in 1888. From these coastal stations, nine-member boats were rowed through the surf to rescue mariners in trouble.

All five boys born to James Howard and Lizzie Willis Lewis of Harkers Island – Theodore, James, Burgess, Ira and Dudley – served in the military with the Coast Guard, Navy or both.

Carteret County historian Rodney Kemp states bluntly: “Chief Ira Lewis was my hero, and a hero to a passel of other people as well. Ira Lewis taught me a lot about boating – like ‘keep the wet side down!’”

Chief Lewis once told the story about the time he told a cub reporter from a weekly newspaper the reason he joined the Coast Guard in 1938 was because “I was sick of digging clams for five cents a peck and picking croakers.”

Kemp explained that in this sense, picking “means scaling and cleaning the smallish fish. It’s a term folks use as well when eating them, having to pick around the many bones found in croakers.”

In 1940, Ira Lewis married Maggie Hancock of Harkers Island, and they raised two children in the various communities where he was stationed with the Coast Guard in the New York City area.

Chief Lewis had the honor of serving as Lighthouse Keeper at Montauk Point on the tip of eastern Long Island. He considered that a crowning achievement of his Coast Guard career.

Kemp revealed: “Ira is pronounced as ‘Ari.’ I know it seems backward, but just accept it. That’s just how it is Down East. ‘Ari’ rolls off the tongue; ‘Ira,’ is harder for your mouth to say.”

In 2016, Chief Lewis was interviewed for an oral history project, “Saltwater South: Harkers Island.” He told the interviewer that life’s greatest satisfaction is “saving somebody’s life.”

Chief Lewis said he helped save nine peoples’ lives during his 21 years of Coast Guard service.”

He touched and influenced thousands of more lives…and we’ll go there soon.

Mike Wagoner is a retired chamber of commerce executive and a public relations counselor, Blog:

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