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Family recalls Waterford man as life of the party

Billy Lewis never shied away from a microphone or an opportunity to dance. He was known for his off-the-cuff speeches at weddings and other events and for his ability to take over a dance floor.

“My brother was famous for his speeches. If there was a mic nearby, he was going to grab it and say something,” his brother David Lewis of Niantic said.

William Bennett "Billy" Lewis of Waterford died Jan. 8 at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital due to complications from COVID-19. He was 56.

His brother and those who knew Billy said he loved to socialize, including any occasion where he could wear his three-piece suit. The life of the party, he usually had a smile on his face or was cracking a joke.

"I would always say his two favorite things in life were food and pretty women and that might not be the right order," David Lewis said. "He was a total joy to be around."

Oftentimes when David called the group home where his brother was living about picking him up on a Friday night, the staff there would tell him Billy was out for a night.

“He was just a wonderful, happy human being who knew how to enjoy life,” Lewis said.

Billy, who had Down syndrome, was born three months early. His parents were told he’d never walk.

“We never gave up on him,” said his father, William F. Lewis.

Billy was among the first in the region to live in a group home, his brother said. He lived at the Broadway Group Home in Norwich for many years, and more recently at the Pepperbox Group Home in Waterford. The staff and residents at both homes were like Billy's second family, his brother said.

Tammy McIntyre, Billy’s sister, recalled how when she and Billy were growing up, they loved singing together in the car — songs like “This Land is Your Land” and "Kumbaya," often ad-libbing the lyrics as they went.

Later on, when Tammy was a student at the University of Connecticut, she would pick up Billy, who was living at the group home in Norwich, on her way home.

On one of those drives, Billy started repeating what his sister was saying.

“Finally I said, 'Are you making fun of me?' And he said, 'Are you making fun of me?' It became this banter between the two of us,” she said.

Tammy said her brother developed Alzheimer's later in life and she knew his health was declining when he no longer "could do that back to me."

Tammy and Billy's father lives in Lincolnton, N.C., and when Billy went to visit he loved playing mini-golf with his dad. He also enjoyed riding the elder Lewis' lawn mower.

"He thought he was a king. I took the blade off the bottom. He didn’t know. I would’ve had a figure 8 out there if I didn't," his father quipped.

Billy was active in the Special Olympics, competing in swimming and track and field events. He worked for many years at Seabird Enterprises, a nonprofit that provides vocational and day programs for individuals with disabilities.

Don Holmes of Norwich, who worked at Seabird for many years, said the first time he met Billy, "he came up to me and shook my hand and asked who I was."

"That’s the way he was with everyone," Holmes said.

Billy worked with the landscaping crews at Seabird and at the horse farm. The organization had an annual horse show that Billy loved participating in.

"He dressed up in a bolo tie, a big western hat. He really took it seriously. He took pride in that," Holmes said.

The coronavirus pandemic made it difficult for the family to see Billy. His mother is in a nursing home in Niantic and through the summer and early fall, David would pick up Billy weekly and bring him to the nursing home so the three of them could visit together outside.

Billy contracted COVID-19 and ended up in the hospital in early January. When the family learned that Billy would have to be placed on a ventilator, they made the decision to switch to comfort measures only, David said. He said he was fortunate that Billy was given a private room where David could be by his side until he died.

"I thought many times about people last year who didn’t have that opportunity," he said. "To be able to be there with my bother during his final hours and hold his hand and in this weird world that we're living in have my sister and father on FaceTime, it helped all of us."

David said he's indebted to the staff at L+M who took care of his brother and who have been on the front lines of the pandemic. 

"I don’t know how they do it. They're doing it day after day," he said. "I don’t know how many people they get to see leave."

j.bergman@theday.com

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