‘My priorities changed 180 degrees’

Jess Lewis talks about what he has learned from almost dying

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
Jess Lewis, of Fort Dodge, looks on outside of LifeTree Cafe in downtown Fort Dodge, recently.

In the summer of 1992, Jess Lewis found himself in a fight for his life when he was ambushed in downtown Fort Dodge.

Lewis, of Fort Dodge, shared his story during a recent program on prioritizing what’s important after near-death experiences. The program was held at Lifetree Cafe, 18 S. Third St.

It was a sunny afternoon on the day of the attack. Lewis was working for Allers Associates Architects at the time and planned to join his co-workers for a break.

But first he wanted to buy a soft drink from a convenience store located along North Ninth Street.

“I stopped at the Pop-N-Go to get a Pepsi and by that time my friends were about a block-and-a-half down the street, so I was trying to hurry,” Lewis recalled.

It was about 2:30 p.m. when Lewis asked the cashier for a can of Pepsi.

“They were all out of cans, so I bought a 16-ounce bottle and took off to catch up with them,” he said.

As he walked near the corner of Ninth Street and Second Avenue North, he was confronted.

“I was attacked by an unknown guy,” Lewis said. “He was yelling and hollering and when he caught up to me he grabbed me by the throat and demanded my money.”

The man continued to squeeze Lewis’s throat.

“I couldn’t breathe,” Lewis said. “I didn’t know what to do — the guy kept screaming.”

The two men were standing as Lewis tried to fend off his attacker.

“The only thing that went through my mind was to hit him with that bottle as hard as I could, and I did,” Lewis said.

The bottle shattered and the man threw Lewis to the ground.

Blood dripped from Lewis’s arm as he got up and ran to McGrevey Law Office, located nearby.

The assailant followed him.

Once Lewis was inside the office, a staff member there called police.

Lewis and the staff member held the door shut as the man banged on it with his fists.

Police arrived and arrested the suspect.

“They were there within two minutes,” Lewis recalled.

Meanwhile, the staff at the McGrevey Law Office continued to help Lewis.

“They were really nice,” he said. “I remember them. They took good care of me.”

Lewis was taken to the hospital where he had six stitches put in his arm.

At the time of the struggle, Lewis said he didn’t have time to think.

“That was the most traumatic,” he said. “It happened so fast.”

The incident still affects him.

“There was nights I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I have a fear of people getting behind me or following me. I have never forgotten that. I thank God. Had I not reacted the way I did, I am sure I would not be here.”

It wasn’t the last time Lewis had a brush with death.

Later that year, he underwent a triple bypass surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

“I did not have a heart attack,” he said. “I got there before that.”

Lewis said after his operation he stopped sweating the small stuff.

“My priorities really changed then,” he said. “I used to get really upset when someone didn’t use their turn signal. Now that’s their problem, not mine.”

He had more time to think about that experience.

“If you have no control over it, you can’t change it,” he said. “Forget about it.”

Lewis, a lifelong Fort Dodger, is well-known in the area. In addition to being a CAD operator and field worker for various architect firms in the city, he served on the city’s Board of Appeals for 28 years. He volunteered for 18 years with the Boy Scouts of America and has been heavily involved in the Fort Dodge Noon Lions Club for 28 years. He’s also a member of First Baptist Church.

The late Sandy Mickelson, a longtime Messenger columnist, once referred to Lewis as Mr. Lion.

About five years ago, Lewis was tested again when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

“With the CT scan they discovered something on one of my lymph nodes and found it was non-Hodgkins lymphoma,” he said.

Five years later, he is still fighting. He is currently in “maintenance” chemotherapy.

“I have been in treatment for cancer for five years,” he said. “Let’s just say I am a five-year survivor.”

When he was first diagnosed, a rush of thoughts went through his mind.

“You hear that word cancer and a lot of things go through your mind all of the sudden,” he said. “Those things were family. I had time to think about it when I had heart surgery. I was more concerned with family than I was me. I was concerned about my wife and kids. If I had things in order, would they be OK. All that stuff. It was weird with the cancer because right away, I said well what’s next. It is what it is. It’s there. I can’t change it.”

He credits his wife, Mary Lewis, for helping him through difficult times.

“She’s my bride of 64 years,” he said. “We met in high school and married out of high school. She has put up with me ever since.”

His near-death experiences have put what’s truly important in perspective.

“Things that used to matter, don’t matter,” he said. “Things I used to take for granted are very high on my priority list, like family, church. My priorities changed 180 degrees, and today I think I have gotten them straightened out.”