Herald-Mail veteran reporter Franca Lewis dies

March 04, 1997


Staff Writer

In her nearly 30-year career, Herald-Mail reporter Franca Lewis took on public officials and doggedly stood up for those people without a voice - gaining the respect and friendship of both groups.

Today her colleagues and sources alike are mourning her passing.

Lewis, 50, died suddenly Monday night while covering the assignment closest to her heart - the town of Williamsport.

She had just checked on the results of the town election and had gone to her home at 100 W. Potomac St. in Williamsport to begin writing her story when she collapsed about 6:30 p.m.

Lewis was pronounced dead at 7:21 p.m. at Washington County Hospital, according to Washington County forensic investigator Tom Wetzel.

The cause of death will be determined in an autopsy today at the medical examiner's office in Baltimore, Wetzel said.

Lewis' family remembered her as a loving mother and fiancee.


"She was very caring and sensitive to other people's needs," said her oldest son Adam Lewis, who works in Frederick County for the Maryland Department of Taxation and Assessments.

"I know she loved her work. She enjoyed the nature of the job and the people she worked with," he said.

Her younger son, John Lewis, is a senior at Frostburg State University.

Her fiance Richard Herman recalled that "anytime someone came to the house she always had a smile on her face. She was the perfect hostess ... It was the Latin in her."

Lewis, whose assignments over the years ranged from covering Washington County to solving consumers' complaints through Action Line, combined the seemingly contradictory characteristics of a hard-hitting journalist with the warmth and caring of a community reporter.

"She brought a real human quality to the newsroom," Herald-Mail Publisher John League said.

Her dedication was evident in the work she put into the Williamsport page. "Her town page just sang," League said.

Through her work on Action Line, in which she pursued readers' consumer complaints with businesses, "she probably single-handedly helped more people than anyone at the paper," he said.

Herald-Mail Executive Editor Gloria George said that Lewis "never let a story get away. She never let anybody lie to her ... She loved asking the tough questions, getting the tough assignments."

"She was feisty. She was a go-getter and a pit bull. She never gave up but she really had a heart for the little guy, which made her great for Action Line," Daily Mail editor Arnold Platou said Monday night.

Platou, who used to cover county government for the Morning Herald, competed against Lewis, who covered the same beat for the Daily Mail.

Williamsport Mayor John Slayman remembered Lewis as both a good reporter and a decent person.

He saw her at the polls just 20 minutes before she was stricken and he ran to her home when he saw the ambulance, he said.

"When she had something she wanted to say, she said it. And we respected her," Slayman said. "Hell, I'm going to miss her."

Washington County Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers, who was president of the County Commissioners when Lewis covered county government, called her a "reporter's reporter."

"She was relentless on a story. She would get to the bottom of a story. She would excel in trying to get to the facts. And she printed them," Bowers said. "She was relentless in her quest for the truth."

Herald-Mail reporter Marlo Barnhart said Lewis was the first person she met when she started at the paper 28 years ago.

"She taught me never to take any guff from anybody. She taught me a lot of things about being a better reporter," Barnhart said.

Despite her diminutive stature, Lewis was known as a feisty and spunky truth-teller - equal parts rebel, fighter and soft touch.

Her infectious laugh and booming voice often could be heard across the newsroom.

Even editors did not escape Lewis' righteous indignation when they made a mistake, Platou said.

"She always wanted to make sure that people understood what was really going on," he said. "She just cared very deeply."

More often than not, she and the target of her temporary wrath would end up laughing.

"I always knew if I asked her opinion on something I was getting the straight poop. I could always depend on Franca for the truth," Barnhart said. "This community is going to miss her a lot."

"She had a great way with sources, a way of almost, I don't know, becoming a sister or confidante to them. She just had a way of getting people to open up ... to trust her," Herald-Mail Editorial Page Editor Bob Maginnis said.

Terry Talbert, a Herald-Mail reporter for 27 years, noted that Lewis "had a simple sense of fairness, a real basic sense of fairness and a sense of responsibility to the readers ... She reported events fairly and without bias even though she was very opinionated, very feisty."

"She was little in stature, you know. She had a big heart," Talbert added.

Younger Herald-Mail employees remembered Lewis as a mother figure, always ready with some good advice and warm support.

Lewis was born in Rome, Italy, the daughter of an American father and an Italian mother, and spent her childhood in a variety of places - Rome; Dharan, Saudi Arabia; Miami and Vero Beach, Florida; Wichita, Kansas and Lock Haven, Pa.

She graduated from Lock Haven State College with an associate of arts degree in 1966.

From 1966 to 1967, Lewis worked at the Lock Haven (Pa.) Express. She joined the Herald-Mail staff in 1967 and worked there until 1970, after which she held a series of jobs with the Washington County Board of Education, the Hagerstown Cracker Barrel and WHAG-TV.

Lewis returned to the Herald-Mail in 1978 as a temporary reporter and was rehired on a full-time basis in October, 1979.

Terry Headlee contributed to this story.

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