Long-time juvenile probation head steps down

After being in one place for 27 years, cleaning up can be a difficult task.

For Bill Lewis, Carson City juvenile probation chief, cleaning out his desk for retirement has been a waltz down memory lane. Friday will be his last official day of work, and he is being replaced by Senior Juvenile Probation Officer Sheila Banister.

"I've taken five big boxes of paperwork out," he said. "Cleaning up like this is like walking through your years of experience."

After 24 years as head of the city's juvenile probation department, Lewis' office is a mixture of work and memories laced into every file folder.

One letter he saved from 1977 is a reminder of his first failure at a skill he's mastered during his tenure.

Lewis' grant-writing skills have brought literally millions of dollars to the city's juvenile probation program, but the first grant he wrote for almost $1 million to build a badly needed juvenile detention facility was denied.

He didn't give up, wrote another grant request the same year and acquired the money to build the detention center at Fifth Street and Saliman Road. By 1979, the small group that made up the department was working out of the new center.

He's had one major tragedy in his years at the helm - one that has directed him in many of the paths that he's taken at work.

About five months before the grant to build the detention center came through, a girl being held at the sheriff's office hung herself.

Walking to his file cabinet Thursday, he pulled a file which obviously held more than paper for him.

"I still have her file," he said, fingering the file briefly before putting it back. "It's one of those tragedies you don't want to see.

"The sheriff and I had to cut her down," he said. "Going through a sad suicide is something you never forget. You never put it in a closet and walk away from it. I never want to see that again. I never want to see anyone go through something like that. If you like kids and you like working with them, you don't want to see it again."

At the time, juvenile offenders were held in the Carson City jail before being sent to places such as Wittenberg Hall in Reno. It was one incident that led Lewis to grant writing as well as to his hands-on approach to running the center.

Born in Reno in 1947, Lewis was raised in Carson City and is a 1965 graduate of Carson High School. His grandfather was warden at the Nevada State Prison, and Lewis' father often had visits from inmates who knew the elder Lewis as a child. Seeing those men and the impact his father and grandfather had in their lives helped prompt Lewis into a career of helping others.

He spent two years at the University of Nevada, Reno, before joining the Navy during the Vietnam War.

"You needed 60 credits for a deferment, I had 59," he said. "But I think the military is a good experience for young people."

He graduated from UNR in 1972 and went to work for the state - as a janitor.

"Here I was, 25, military and college behind me, and I was carrying mops and buckets," he said. "But I kept the goal of working with youth in front of me."

In 1973, he went to work for Carson City's Juvenile Probation Department.

He became the chief juvenile probation officer at age 28 after Juvenile Probation Master Dan Murphy and Chief Juvenile Probation Officer William "Butch" Bernardini both died tragically of heart attacks in the same week.

In talking about himself, Lewis almost always returns to talking about the juvenile center and the programs they have for troubled youth. By his own admission, he's a workaholic. He hasn't taken two weeks off in 24 years, he said. He's on call 24 hours a day and wants to do whatever it takes to avoid major problems.

"I've probably had too much work in my life," he said. "This job has been a major part of my life. I made a personal commitment to give my best efforts to move forward and develop the best juvenile probation department we could have. There's no plateau in a business like this. In a 24-hour-a-day business, you don't want to have to come down because of a major disaster. Problems facing kids today are different. There are drugs. Gangs are a new problem I never thought would be here. They're not my kids, but it is my responsibility to see that they're given the best resources and the best legal help in an environment as best as it can be for them."

One needs only to look around the juvenile detention center to see Lewis' accomplishments there. His impact in the rest of the community includes helping to found the Community Council on Youth, the Boys & Girls Club of Western Nevada and serving on multiple local and state boards dealing with youth and mental health.

"That's really where it's at, if you can walk away and say you gave it your best shot," he said. "I feel very proud to be able to go through this career and go through many changes and leave with what I think is one of the finest juvenile centers in the state."

He had hoped that his retirement would coincide with the opening of the new juvenile offices and classrooms being built a few hundred feet from the detention center.

"When you work on something for five years, you want to see it finished," he said. "I've told them I'll help them finish it."

Lewis' retirement is, more than anything, a chance for him to recharge his batteries. He plans on taking some time off before going back to work again. He plans to stay involved at least with the Community Council on Youth and will always be available for help. He said half the retired people he's talked to either say retirement is great or you should never quit working.

"My house needs a lot of work," he said. "I'm a fall person, and I like hunting and fishing. I haven't golfed in so long. It's a well deserved break, and I might as well enjoy (life) while I still can."

For now, he wants to get a new dog, be outdoors and watch football.

"So the year I retire, the '49ers are in the bottom of their division, and they used to be pretty good," he said. "I have season '49ers tickets, and I'll take it from there."


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