Champaign County Health Care Consumers and our 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign is mourning a beloved leader and dear friend, Jerry (JB) Lewis.
Even as JB struggled with pancreatic cancer, he continued to be a stalwart neighborhood resident leader of the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign, showing up for strategy meetings, community meetings, press conferences, and campus teach-ins whenever he could – even when he was undergoing treatment for his cancer.
JB Lewis passed away on Friday, January 1, 2021.
For over 8 years, JB has been an active member and leader of the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign, especially stepping up his leadership following the death of Ebbie Cook, Sr. – another beloved neighborhood leader who died in 2018. JB not only stepped up in his leadership role within the Campaign, he also stepped up to looking after and checking in on Maggie Cook, Ebbie’s wife, who is also a leader in the Campaign.
The 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign, started in 2007, is an environmental justice campaign dedicated to protecting the health of the neighborhood residents and the rights of the community in relation to the former manufactured gas plant toxic site owned by Ameren, located at 5th and Hill Streets in Champaign. CCHCC is organizing this campaign in collaboration with neighborhood residents and former residents, and now with support also from U of I student groups – Black Students for Revolution (BSFR) and IGA. The Campaign is currently focused on trying to make the IL EPA and Ameren expand the area of investigation in order to identify all toxic contamination that resulted from the operation of the former manufactured gas plant, and to remediate the remaining toxic contamination.
The 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign has had many significant victories over the past 10+ years, under the leadership of Ebbie Cook, along with Maggie Cook, MD Pelmore, Eileen Oldham, Sandra Jackson, JB Lewis, and Jessie Clarette. Some of those victories include forcing Ameren to excavate and remediate the 5th & Hill property, compelling the City of Champaign to “cap” the toxic pipe that funneled tons of coal tar into the Boneyard Creek, filing a lawsuit against Ameren, and engaging the US EPA to investigate indoor vapor intrusion into residents’ homes (currently ongoing) as a result of the spread of toxic chemicals through the soil and groundwater in the neighborhood.
JB Lewis was a kind and gentle person – a beautiful soul. His leadership was quiet and dignified. He was a gentleman who listened carefully, and who was studious and analytical, always doing his “homework” on 5th & Hill. He was thoughtful, and he was generous. He loved working with the students and community members who have joined the Campaign – they gave him energy and they continue to bring enthusiasm to this important work.
JB showed up every time he could – even when battling pancreatic cancer. He participated in outreach events like class talks at the U of I, Teach-Ins organized by BSFR and IGA on campus, press conferences and community meetings. And for years, JB attended 5th & Hill’s twice a month meetings held at Mr. MD Pelmore’s home, where Campaign leaders would strategize and plan next steps. JB, along with Ebbie Cook, also participated on City of Champaign committees involved with the Boneyard Creek Redevelopment project.
JB had a quiet dignity about him, and a gentleness that spoke volumes. He was a man of great humility who never sought the limelight – he simply sought to serve and to do the work that was required. He eschewed the limelight, but was a leader who led toward the light, for the greater good.
His manner was professorial – when he spoke it was always thoughtful, clear, and on point. He really did not speak unnecessarily – in fact, he was a man of few words, other than when he really had something to say. So, when JB spoke, everyone knew it was important, and listened intently.
I suspect that JB worked harder than anyone knew, in order to maintain his involvement and leadership in the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign – he was battling pancreatic cancer for years, yet he showed up and participated, even when it was clearly a struggle to do so. He was a profoundly private person who never complained or bemoaned his health struggles. He only ever shared good news about his health (“the treatment seems to be working”, etc.), and seemed to want to protect others from knowing the hard truths of what he was facing, choosing instead to focus on the work that had to be done for the Campaign. Such was his abiding commitment to justice for the residents of the 5th & Hill neighborhood.
JB was not a jokester, but he had a good sense of humor and enjoyed the camaraderie of the activists in the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign. Often, after meetings at Mr. MD Pelmore’s home, we would retreat to Mr. Pelmore’s kitchen and dining room to enjoy the snacks that Mr. Pelmore set out and to enjoy each other’s company and conversation. JB spent lots of time with us after these meetings, and it was lovely to see him relaxed and laughing at the jokes we shared. We all share a tender admiration and affection for this gentle and effective leader, JB Lewis.
Like other resident leaders, JB did not set out to be a “teacher”, but he was, in fact, a great teacher. When he spoke, he showed his thought process and in doing so, taught us how to think about certain things.
JB also cared profoundly for the current and future residents of 5th & Hill, and was especially concerned about the health impacts of toxic exposure on the children of the neighborhood. This drove his commitment to working for justice for the neighborhood residents, even when his health was under attack.
JB, along with his fellow resident leaders – MD Pelmore, Ebbie Cook, Maggie Cook, Eileen Oldham, Sandra Jackson, and Jessie Clarette – received multiple awards from CCHCC over the years of his involvement with the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign. In 2014 and 2016, he and his fellow leaders received the John Lee Johnson Social Justice Award. In 2019 it was the Lifetime Achievement Award.
After Ebbie Cook’s death in 2018, JB instinctively knew that we would need him to step up in his leadership role, to help keep the Campaign going. And of course he stepped up, in his quiet, stalwart, and dignified way. He also took on the neighborly responsibility of checking in on Maggie Cook, who lives down the street from him, and he often gave her rides to meetings, and just came by the house for conversation. Maggie Cook, another great 5th & Hill leader, has lost too many dear ones to the cancers and other illnesses that seem so endemic in the neighborhood. Our heart is with Maggie.
JB has been a steady presence at 5th & Hill meetings and events, and his absence will be felt. He will never be forgotten.
Even as our hearts are (again) broken , they are also full – full with love for JB, and for all of you who JB loved and appreciated. Our hearts are full with gratitude that our lives have been graced by JB and the rest of our 5th & Hill family. What we have is special, and what we have been doing and will continue to do is special. And we walk among giants – people who are just truly some of the finest, kindest, fiercest, and most protective people one could ever hope to know. JB was a quiet and steady giant, and he earned the respect and love of everyone who met him and had the privilege of working with him.
JB, like Ebbie Cook, also loved CCHCC and 5th & Hill. And I know – I know with every fiber of my being – that if you have ever helped or supported the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign or CCHCC, JB would want me to thank you and tell you he appreciated you.
JB greatly appreciated all who would care about his neighborhood and the people there, and that you would care enough to give your time, talents, and energy, and financial contributions. You were part of our 5th & Hill Family. And that, my friends, is a sacred and beautiful gift.
Visitation for Jerry (JB) Lewis:
Below are the details for the visitation for Jerry (JB) Lewis.
WHEN: Today, Friday, January 8, 2021
TIME: 4 to 6 p.m.
WHERE: Walker Funeral Service and Chapel – 704 N. 4th Street, Champaign, IL 61820
DETAILS: This is a visitation, and masks are required.
For more information. 
To “share a memory” of JB. 
Jerry (JB) Lewis’s brief Obituary 
My heart is once again broken, now with the death of JB Lewis, one of the finest people I have ever known. The young people who work with us on this Campaign have now experienced more sorrow that their tender years should allow. Sadly, sorrow is baked into the work of this environmental and social justice campaign, because the toxic contamination in the neighborhood is real, and the long-term impacts on people’s lives and health are deadly serious. The sorrow, and the rage, that we feel as we lose another great leader and friend, are the product of love – love for the people of 5th & Hill, and the love that fuels the pursuit of justice for the residents of the 5th & Hill Neighborhood.
Now, as I reflect on JB’s work with CCHCC and the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign, I am filled with gratitude and tenderness for our gentle comrade, JB Lewis, and for all the other resident leaders and others who make up this campaign to fight for justice.
We are a collection of people who work to improve the health and lives of our fellow community members, and I can’t help but be filled with gratitude for the grace of people like Jerry (JB) Lewis, and all who work for the greater good and bring their light to our lives and our community. May JB rest in power and know that he did good in this world and that he was beloved by all.
Sincerely and with Deepest Sympathy,
CCHCC Executive Director