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Tri-Valley Hero: Don Lewis, impacting music and lives

Pleasanton resident earns Arts and Culture award for contributions to musical world, community at-large

Growing up in Ohio in the 1940s and '50s, music was a constant presence in Don Lewis' everyday life.

He fondly recalls how his elementary school teachers would lead the class in singing before settling down for a lesson, and how he would picture the performers as he listened to the Metropolitan Opera Company over the radio with his mother.

But Lewis never picked up an instrument himself until he was an adolescent, when a vivid dream left an impact.

"My interest in playing the organ was piqued by a young man playing at our church -- I sat behind him and watched him play," Lewis, 75, said. "One evening I went to sleep and had a dream that I was sitting there playing the organ. The feeling I had in that dream, I had never felt anything like it."

The next morning, Lewis told his grandmother he wanted to learn to play the organ, to which she replied that he'd have to learn the piano first.

"I said, 'OK, whatever it takes,'" Lewis recalled.

Over the decades since that fateful morning, the young man from Dayton, Ohio would become known as a musical pioneer for inventing an instrument called the Live Electronic Orchestra (LEO), a synthesizer system that was an inspiration for Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI).

But in and around Pleasanton, his home for more than three decades, Lewis is particularly known for his advocacy work through his talent.

He started two programs to foster music and the arts among youth -- Young Expressions, a mentoring opportunity for local student artists, and Say "Yes" to Music!, through which Lewis has performed at school assemblies for thousands of students and teachers. Lewis has also stepped up to encourage the Pleasanton school district to preserve and add to its music offerings amidst recent years of fiscal uncertainty for those programs.

Lewis' contributions to the musical world and community at-large earned him this year's Tri-Valley Heroes Arts and Culture award, which he accepted at a ceremony in Pleasanton last month.

"Music has been my magic carpet ride -- it's taken me throughout the world," Lewis said during his acceptance speech. "But it's also taken me into the hearts and minds of people throughout the world."

Lewis' musical journey saw him encountering many unique people and places in his stops along the way to the Tri-Valley. After graduating high school, he enrolled in college as an electronics engineering student at what was then called Tuskegee Institute, where he would also join the Tuskegee Chorus.

Less than 30 miles from where Lewis was attending school in Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was serving as a pastor in Montgomery and leading the charge for African-American civil rights, Lewis recalled.

King would visit Tuskegee to meet with college professors, and Lewis would play for his rallies.

"We used some of the old spirituals and gospel work songs, and changed the lyrics to go with the Civil Rights Movement," Lewis said.

Lewis' time at Tuskegee was cut short, however by the political unrest of the time. Rather than being drafted into the U.S. Army, in 1961 he enlisted in the Air Force and served a four-year tour in Roswell, N.M., as a nuclear weapons specialist for the Atlas missile.

Upon completing his service, Lewis moved to Denver, where at one point he simultaneously worked as an engineering technician, a choir director and a musician playing regular restaurant gigs.

He eventually decided to quit his engineering job to become a full-time professional musician. That decision later led to Lewis' move to Los Angeles, where in the mid-1970s he would design the Plexiglass shell that later became the LEO.

"(The invention) came out of necessity from hauling around all these individual instruments that I could not get complete access to play all the time," Lewis said.

Along with that invention, Lewis can also count among his achievements writing works for the Denver Symphony Orchestra and working with greats like Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson.

As a Pleasanton resident of 35 years, Lewis has also particularly enjoyed bringing his passion for music to schools in the Tri-Valley and beyond through his Say "Yes" to Music! assemblies. While he hasn't done any of late, Lewis continues to perform at local venues and lead the songs at Rotary Club of Pleasanton meetings.

"Music has been the vehicle I've been able to use and continue to use -- I'm not finished," he said.

Hero FYI

* Don Lewis lives in Pleasanton with his wife, Julie. They have two adult sons, Marc and Paul, who live in other parts of the state.

* The LEO, the instrument Lewis created, is now on display at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad.

* After moving to California, Lewis performed with The Beach Boys, playing the synthesizer and opening for the band in 1974.

* He has also created scores for film and television productions, including the "Rainbows End" and "Were You There" series on PBS.

* His pioneering work is the subject of a documentary called "The Ballad of Don Lewis," set to be released next year.

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