Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Historical Figure: Hunt Lewis

The Civil War gallery of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (HRNM) has seen its share of changes as artifacts and exhibits rotate in and out, but one of the longest-lasting staples of the Civil War Gallery appears each Friday.  Clad in a Union Navy officer’s uniform, a figure gazes out as if from the deck of a blockading ship just off the coast.   Occasionally, visitors will sidle up to him and even put their arms around him for photographs, only to jump, scream and run away when the figure begins to move.

“A volunteer with the USS Midway Museum in San Diego once approached me and was amazed that this museum had such a high quality mannequin that people could actually touch,” said J. Huntington “Hunt” Lewis, a person as real as you or I, but someone who magically becomes one with the gallery on the three days a week he volunteers.

“An eight or nine-year-old girl once pointed me out and said, ‘He’s a dead man, but somebody stuffed him.’”

Hunt Lewis pauses for a moment within the Civil War Gallery of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, in his words, "55 years later and 154 years earlier" than when he first put on a naval uniform as a midshipman. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)

Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, Lewis has personified the past at HRNM for nearly 22 years.  He began by portraying a merchant mariner of Norfolk of the 1820s who could regale visitors of tales of life in Norfolk after the incident between the American frigate Chesapeake and the British warship Leopard before the War of 1812.  Lewis has also traveled to schools throughout the area to give his first-person accounts of life at sea during the age of sail.  But as the decades came and went, so did his characters, and about 8 years ago, he settled upon his current persona, Lt. Cmdr. Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr., who was serving aboard the ill-fated sloop-of-war Cumberland on blockade duty when she was sunk by the Confederate ironclad Virginia 
In addition to his interpretive work as a docent, Lewis has also worked as a volunteer educator for the museum, bringing visitors, in his words, “behind the label plates.”  He was one of the first to expose Norfolk’s elementary school children to the popular Blacks in Blue program, which originally highlighted the role of African-Americans in the Union Navy during the Civil War and since has been expanded to encompass all of U.S. Navy history.  At the suggestion of HRNM Director Becky Poulliot, he also originated and has authored over 400 installments of the long-running “Moments in Naval History” series that has appeared in the local Navy newspaper The Flagship for the past 15 years.
After a career as a naval officer and then as a contractor overseeing ships’ selected record and technical documentation specialists, Lewis did not set out initially to do anything related to history, or even the Navy, in his retirement.  That changed after he saw a flyer calling for volunteers for the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, which was preparing to move from Naval Station Norfolk to a larger venue downtown.  
Lewis reckons that he is the last alumnus of over 30 prospective docents who began training at the naval station’s Pennsylvania House, the museum’s former home, in the spring of 1994.  Technically, that would make him the last HRNM plank owner among the docents still serving.  In order to prepare for their roles at the museum, the first docents had to use maps and descriptions of objects in place of the real thing because the galleries at the museum’s new home within Nauticus, the National Maritime Center, did not yet exist.
It was during those early training sessions he began building a notebook that he carries to this day, filled with information about every vessel, hero, or battle featured in the museum’s collection,   although he has fully embraced digital research and rarely leaves his mini-laptop at home.  He also maintains a research library of around 400 books at his home to augment the titles carried in the museum’s library, from which he has answered thousands of visitor queries over the years, and in so doing he has cultivated contacts from as far away as Australia.   

J. Huntington Lewis, USNA, 1961. (Courtesy Hunt Lewis)

Lewis demurs at the suggestion that over his tenure he has amassed all the answers to any question a student of local naval history could ask, saying instead that his greatest strength lies not in being able to answer any question, but in knowing where to find the answers and “attacking things from an oblique angle.” He credits the formative experiences he had searching for the answers to endless dinnertime questions from upperclassmen during his plebe year at the United States Naval Academy, from which he graduated in 1961, spending hours in libraries scattered about Bancroft Hall. 
Lewis has earned “literally a drawer full” of awards, said Tom Dandes, volunteer coordinator for the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, including earning numerous Presidential Volunteer Service Awards, with several of them being earned in a single year.  He was recognized as Docent of the Year by VisitNorfolk in 2012, and during HRNM's annual volunteer appreciation dinner on April 14 he will become only the third person to earn the museum's 10,000-hour service award.  By comparison, a volunteer becomes eligible for the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award after completing 4,000 hours of service.  
Hunt Lewis describes the transformation of the frigate USS Merrimack into the Confederate ironclad Virginia to Trent Johnson and his daughter Jessica, who were visiting from South Dakota. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)
“I almost become a different person when I am out of the floor,” said Lewis.  Socially, I’m rather retiring but on the floor you’d never think it.  Call that a matter of confidence.”   
“I’ve been having more fun doing this than most anything else I’ve done in my life.”

No comments: