By Romi Carrell Wittman –
2016 FATHER OF THE YEAR HONOREE
Banking on Family – John Lewis Carries on the Lessons of His Father
When asked how he built a successful 48-year banking career while managing the demands of fatherhood and community, John P. Lewis immediately points to his wife of nearly 50 years, Jeannine Lewis.
“I couldn’t have done it without my wife balancing things behind the scenes. Opening a bank is a very difficult process and I’ve had a wonderful run,” said Lewis, president and CEO of Commerce Bank of Arizona.
The two met in Spanish class at Tucson High School and got married in 1968 while Lewis was a senior at the University of Arizona. Six years later, they started a family that would grow to include two sons. Today son Jason is married to wife Hanna and works as firefighter. Scott works at Banner Health.
Lewis said his sons have given him and his wife many wonderful years of excitement, though he admits some nail biting did take place.
He recalls building his sons a skateboard ramp and teaching them how to drive a stick shift. The parents loved watching Jason play football at Tucson High and, some years later, watched proudly as son Scott joined the U.S. Navy. That pride extends to today.
“It was such an emotional experience to hear that Scott helped a mother deliver her baby in the parking lot outside of the emergency room at the hospital where he works,” Lewis said. “And the memory of Jason graduating from the Tucson Fire Department academy as a new firefighter and the smile and tears of him holding his newborn son, Kindred, in his arms – it’s unforgettable.”
It’s obvious that fatherhood is near and dear to his heart. After losing his own father to cancer when Lewis was just a sophomore at the UA, he was determined to carry on the many lessons he learned from his dad, a man who was one of 13 kids who never attended high school.
“My dad drove a truck for Lilly Ice Cream for over 30 years. I learned the importance of hard work and dedication. My early years in the summer were spent accompanying him on his deliveries. Every one of his customers loved his sense of humor, sweet disposition and personal relationships. Watching my dad interact with his customers I believe was the beginning of my foundation as a future father and businessman,” Lewis said.
Lewis has spent his entire career in the banking industry, getting his start in 1966 with a part-time job in the mailroom of Southern Arizona Bank while still in college. He liked the company so much he stayed for another 35 years. During his tenure, he moved through the ranks, including the management training program, which vaulted him into senior level positions. He stayed with the company through its merger with First National Bank and eventually Wells Fargo. When he left in 1996, he was division head of Tucson commercial banking.
“When you’re in banking, you’re out all the time at events, boards and committees. My wife made sure I was in the loop. They were so supportive,” he said.
Lewis said his career “brass-ring surprise” happened when, in 1997, he was given the opportunity to form an independent community bank, Southern Arizona Community Bank. During his tenure as president, he was tapped to serve a two-year term on the inaugural Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Community Bank Advisory Committee in Washington, D.C.
That work put enormous demands on his time, but with a strong foundation at home, he thrived. “Honestly, had I not had their support, I wouldn’t have had the results I had. Jeannine knew I was getting pulled in six different directions, but she knew I was happy, so she was happy, the boys were happy.”
Lewis retired in 2012 and Jeannine gave him a big send-off, complete with a recording of Frank Sinatra singing “My Way.”
“That song is the story of every businessman,” Lewis said, laughing at the memory. “You’ve bit off more than you can chew, but I did it my way.”
The retirement didn’t take and, in 2013, he was invited to join Commerce Bank as president, a job he loves.
Jeannine, Jason, Scott, grandson, Kindred, 6, and granddaughter, Allegra, 2, were all present when Lewis learned he was named a 2016 Father’s Day Council Tucson Father of the Year honoree. “It was a huge, emotional moment for me,” Lewis said. “Humbled, surprised and honored do not begin to describe my feelings, especially the absence of my mom and dad for this special moment.”
Lewis said he often thinks of his own father. “He was a wonderful role model and it transferred over into raising kids without being their best friend,” he said. “To quote Frank Sinatra, I have no regrets.”