One of St. Louis Park’s most noted civic figures was B. Robert Lewis, veterinarian, School Board member, and State Senator. Dr. Lewis was a true St. Louis Park pioneer, having been the first African American to serve on a Twin Cities school board, and to be elected to the Minnesota Senate.
Lewis was born on November 2, 1931, in Wichita Kansas. He earned a BS in Animal Husbandry from Kansas State University in 1953 before serving in the Korean War from 1953 to 1955. In 1958 he earned a BS in Biological Science, and in 1960 he took a degree as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, also from Kansas State. He practiced in Omaha for two years before moving to St. Louis Park in July 1962.
Paul Linnee remembers the arrival of the Lewis family to town:
I was working at Norm’s Texaco (Lake Street at Salem Avenue, right next to Kay Motors) one Sunday and this white ’62 Chev with Kansas plates came in, driven by a large black man. It being St. Louis Park, he may have been the first black man I had ever talked to. He was new in town, needed gas and wondered if there was a pet hospital in town. I filled his tank with Fire Chief (regular gas) for about 33.9 cents/gallon, washed his windows and swept out the floor with my whisk broom and directed him up Lake Street to Fitch’s Pet Hospital, up behind the Pastime Roller Rink. I later learned that he had bought the place, was elected to the School Board and then went on to be elected to the MN State Senate, where he served with distinction. At least in my mind, I like to think that I was one of the first St. Louis Parkites he had met.
In an article in the Echo dated December 13, 1967, Lewis described his arrival to the Park:
He recounted an incident of reading of hospital facilities available here, making the trip from Omaha to Park to see the facilities and, upon arrival, being refused lease or purchase of the hospital.
After securing [Dr. Fitch’s] hospital in St. Louis Park, Dr. Lewis and a friend rented a U-Haul truck to move the family’s possessions to the new home in Park. the truck bore Georgia license plates and was to be dispatched to Hopkins after use.
Dr. Lewis continued, “My friend and I arrived and began unloading the furniture, and the neighbors, I assume, thought we were just workmen unloading the furniture. They had no idea that a Negro was moving in next door. And then, after about three or four days it dawned on them that one of the Negroes hadn’t left with the truck, that there actually was a Negro living here. And this was when one of my neighbors circulated a petition, but only one person signed it.”
To the charge that a black family would bring down home values, Dr. Lewis noted that the Fitch home and pet hospital were “a shambles” and he actually improved home values by fixing them up. (The property at 5700 Lake Street was later demolished.) Dr. Lewis became a much-respected member of the community, serving on the Park school board and in the State legislature. At the time Lewis was one of 26 black residents of the Park.
Lewis was first elected to the St. Louis Park School Board in 1966. At various times he served as Treasurer, Chairman, and Clerk. On July 31, 1971, he left the Board when he was appointed to a spot on the State Board of Education.
In 1973 he was elected to the Minnesota State Senate, District 41, serving St. Louis Park and part of Golden Valley. He was chairman of the Finance Subcommittee on Health, Welfare and Corrections. He sponsored legislation to aid victims of family violence and authored bills that established and continued funding for a statewide program for battered women and their families. He co-authored the Family Planning Act of 1978, which would help provide services regardless of income and the Catastrophic Health Insurance legislation which aids families who have a member in a nursing home or which have extraordinary medical expenses. He also helped create a psychiatric service for prison inmates.
Lewis was a founding member of the St. Louis Park Human Relations Council, vice chairman of the St. Louis Park Planning Commission, and on the board of the Minneapolis Urban League (voted Man of the Year).
He was an officer of the Metropolitan Animal Hospital Association and committee chairman at the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association. He served as Secretary, Vice President, and President of the Metropolitan Animal Hospital Association.
Dr. Lewis died of a sudden heart attack at his home in Golden Valley on April 25, 1979 at the age of 47. His body laid in state at the Minnesota Capitol Rotunda, where 500 mourners filed by. He was survived by his wife, Margaret Sandberg, and teenage children B. Robert Lewis, Jr. and Stacy Joan Lewis. At the time of his death he operated the Oak Knoll Clinic in St. Louis Park and the Spring Gate Veterinary Clinic in Golden Valley.
On September 24, 1980, the Minnesota Public Health Association created the B. Robert Lewis Award, first presented at the Grandview Lodge in Brainerd, Minnesota. This award has been given to such political luminaries as George Latimer, Don Fraser, Walter Mondale, Skip Humphrey, Martin Sabo, and Paul Wellstone.