Bensenville to honor longtime conductor Fred Lewis

  • Fred Lewis of Wood Dale, who directed Fenton's band program and the community band for decades, died June 28. A memorial service is set for Aug. 9.

    Fred Lewis of Wood Dale, who directed Fenton's band program and the community band for decades, died June 28. A memorial service is set for Aug. 9. Daily Herald File Photo

By Scott Thomas
Special to the Daily Herald
Updated 7/10/2015 2:09 PM

Fred Lewis was at the center of musical life in Bensenville and Wood Dale for more than 50 years. During his long career, and in his many roles, he inspired and touched the lives of thousands in whose memories he will live on.

A professional musician who led the Fenton High School band program as well as the community band, Lewis died Sunday, June 28, from complications due to pneumonia. He was 78.


Lewis, who lived in Wood Dale, was born in 1937 and grew up in Charleston, Mississippi, playing piano, saxophone and clarinet under the instruction of Charleston High School Music Director Victor Zajac, a graduate of Chicago's VanderCook College of Music.

Zajac was a major influence on Lewis, who earned many statewide honors in Mississippi and began conducting in high school.

After high school, Lewis attended VanderCook, concentrating on woodwinds and conducting. He soon became known in Chicago as a brilliant saxophonist and a talented conductor, as well as an excellent woodwind teacher.

While Lewis was at VanderCook, Fenton High School Music Director Lynn Huffman asked Lewis to provide private lessons for woodwind players in Fenton's bands. Lewis' abilities led Huffman to hire him as a permanent faculty member in 1958.

When Huffman retired in 1962, Lewis became director of bands at Fenton and then music department chairman after the retirement of Fred Krueger in 1967. He retained these positions until his own retirement in 2003.

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In addition, Lewis became music director of the Bensenville Municipal Band, succeeding Huffman in 1962. Previously he was Huffman's assistant conductor.

Lewis brought hard work, talent, discipline and persistence to bear at Fenton. He was equally at home conducting the concert bands, leading the jazz band, teaching woodwinds, conducting musicals, and teaching music appreciation classes.

His professional musical career added dimension to the knowledge he passed on to his students. He earned a national reputation as a music educator and was invited to give clinics and to guest conduct at colleges and high schools around the country.

Lewis made the music program at Fenton exciting, with national and international music tours, performances at the Midwest National Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago, and performances with virtuoso soloists such as Adolph "Bud" Herseth, principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony; jazz trumpeter Clark Terry; cornet soloist James Burke of New York's Goldman Band; and saxophonist Fred Hemke of Northwestern University.


Before the music department's first European tour in 1969, Lewis convinced organizers of the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland to allow Fenton's jazz band to participate, becoming the first high school group ever to perform there.

The performance was televised throughout Europe and so impressed the festival that American high school jazz bands often were invited thereafter.

Lewis achieved his results through remarkable rehearsal techniques. He possessed an infallible ear. His baton technique was exceptionally clear and precise, communicating musical directions with a minimum of motion.

He was always prepared and knew exactly what he wanted to achieve. And he was a holy terror of a disciplinarian, demanding (often at the top of his lungs) that students and professionals alike give undivided attention to his directions and absolute adherence to his beat. Yet he knew when to relieve tension with his sense of humor and quick wit.

With the Bensenville Municipal Band (now the Bensenville-Wood Dale Concert Band), he elevated hundreds of outdoor and indoor performances to professional levels, using talented student, amateur and professional musicians combined with his uncompromising musical standards.

Lewis also had a long tenure as music director of Peace UCC (now Faith Community UCC) in Bensenville, where he served for more than 40 years.

During his education career, Lewis was active as a professional conductor, flutist and saxophonist. In 1971 he competed in the Besançon International Conductor's Competition in France. In 1976, he founded and conducted the original Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra, conducting a series of concerts with that orchestra in 1977-78 at the Auditorium Theatre of Chicago.

He was noted for his performances of wind serenades by Mozart and Richard Strauss, conducting these with members of the Chicago Symphony, Grant Park and Lyric Opera orchestras among the musicians under his baton.

During his final years at Fenton and in early retirement, Lewis returned to VanderCook College as an instructor in woodwind methods and as conductor of the VanderCook College Band. After retiring from Fenton, Lewis opened Lewis' Flute and Piccolo Shop in Villa Park with his daughter Michelle. He continued to teach woodwinds and was active in the business until his health failed.

Lewis is survived by his wife, Hermina, daughters Denise and Michelle, sister Mary and brother-in-law Don Otness, and many cousins, nieces and nephews.

A memorial service will begin at 3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 9, in the auditorium that bears his name, Lewis-Huffman Auditorium, at Fenton High School, 1000 W. Green St., Bensenville. Memorials may be made to the Fred Lewis Scholarship Fund, which benefits deserving music students at Fenton.

Make memorials payable to the Bensenville Community Foundation, P.O. Box 371, Bensenville, IL 60106, and designate them for the Fred Lewis Scholarship Fund.

• Scott Thomas was a student of Fred Lewis at Fenton from 1966 to 1970, then became his friend and musical colleague.

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