Wilmington, Del. – “The Crew” had all assembled at Ronald E. “Butch” Lewis’ casket to pay their final respects – as TV’s Judge Joe Mathis described them, “40 Black men he connected over the years.” Lewis’ coveted “Crew” included actor Denzel Washington, actor/director Robert Townsend, comedian Michael Colyer, actor Leon, actor/comedian Darryl “Chill” Mitchell, Morehouse College President Robert M. Franklin, retired boxer Michael Spinks, singer Keith Washington, Great Debaters actor/nephew Stephen Rider, and many more Black men of stature and note.
“Butch Lewis was the glue,” Rev. Al Sharpton, the eulogist of the hour, reiterated like many who paid tribute to the legendary boxing promoter, entrepreneur, and music label owner at his August 1 funeral. Referring to the Noah and the ark story in Genesis 7, Sharpton said, “Butch said his gift was to take things that didn’t seem like they belonged together, and put them together. ‘The Crew’ exemplified that.”
Lewis’ was a homegoing service fit for a dignitary – so large, in fact, that it had to be held at the Chase Center on the Riverfront, the largest venue in the state of Delaware, with a viewing that started just after dawn. The celebration of life wasn’t for a politician, world leader, or Nobel Prize winner. It was for Lewis, who was known in VIP circles far and wide, yet was still considered a common man to the people in his home communities.
Just as they had weeks earlier for his 65th birthday celebration, the important people came out again, to laugh, cry, and remember Lewis, who died suddenly on July 23 of natural causes at his home in Bethany Beach, Del. They all remarked that Lewis must have known he didn’t have long to live, and as Colyer said, planned a “pretranstional celebration.” They all talked about him living out the “dash” between his birth and death with hard work and passion.
The incomparable Stevie Wonder was there this time, treating Lewis’ family to the one wish he hadn’t received on his birthday – a performance from Wonder himself, who roused the crowd immediately with his soulful rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer.” He followed with classics like “Overjoyed,” “Isn’t She Lovely,” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered [I’m Yours],” inviting audience participation in typical Stevie fashion.
For this party of a different kind, the list of stars who came to pay tribute read like a Hollywood’s Who’s Who list, including retired boxers Muhammad Ali, Larry Hazzard, Mike Tyson, and Tommy Hearns. From the multimedia and literary world there was Radio One’s Cathy Hughes, BET’s Debra Lee and Bob Johnson, ESPN’s Keith “Clink” Scales, former Universal Motown president Sylvia Rhone, and author/scholar Michael Eric Dyson.
Actors, athletes, and musicians came from far and wide – to name a few: Lynn Whitfield, Tim and Daphne Reid, and director John Singleton; producer Kedar Massenberg; former NBA player Magic Johnson and wife Cookie, former NBA player Charles Smith, and Five Heartbeats actor Michael Wright. Politicians such as Kweisi Mfume, Del. Governor Jack Markell, and former Congressman Mike Castle were there, too.
There were also droves of regular people there – from Lewis’ nearby hometowns of Chester, Pa., and Woodbury, NJ., and from his longtime state of residence, Delaware. In Delaware, the boxing promoter had settled into a well-known rock star life at the beach, where he often played host to close friends like Denzel Washington and sometimes Michael Jordan. Lewis hadn’t needed to work in years – his payday from the classic, 90-second Tyson-Spinks fight in 1993 alone had made him a rich man. But he kept working – and networking – amassing relationships in industries far beyond boxing and sports.
In his eulogy, Sharpton shared a funny story about his efforts to bring Lewis onboard his “anti N-word” campaign some years ago. Lewis, who asked if he could just write a check for the cause, wasn’t about to make the ultimate sacrifice, remarking to Sharpton, “N*gga please.” A few years later, when Lewis wanted him to cross a swamp to meet with and bless an Indian tribe in Florida, an N-word reformed Sharpton simply replied, “N*gga please.” The mourners laughed, at the joke and possibly at the irony of the unlikely friendship.
Lewis was remembered as a man known for heavy cussing and Crown Royal, but who had a special, personal way with everyone he knew. “People need to mind they daggone business,” said Pastor Darrell Freeman who officiated the service. “People think they know people. He was saved…thankfully, man looks on the outside, but God looks on the inside.” The lobby outside his massive funeral was filled with photos – of Lewis with James Brown, several U.S. Presidents, icons like Quincy Jones, family and friends, and every great name known to boxing from at least the past half century.
Whatever Lewis had done, he had done something right.