On Victoria Day weekend in 1936, a monstrous crime was committed in Sarnia – then a city of only 18,000 inhabitants.
The attempt by two bandits to rob the city’s lone liquor store that Saturday night resulted in the slaying of a 33-year-old police constable named George Edward John (Jack) Lewis. It was Sarnia’s first line-of-duty death of an on-duty police officer.
At the time of the botched robbery, there were two dozen patrons in the liquor store. Constable Lewis was one of four police officers who responded to the alarm of a robbery in progress. He was shot and killed in the first minute that he arrived at the scene of the crime.
Jack Lewis left a wife, Vera, and two young children. He died protecting the lives and property of the citizens of Sarnia. At the time of his death, a wave of grief and shared tragedy gripped the city for weeks, together with a revulsion for the crime and the two thugs who shared responsibility for it.
But Jack Lewis’ sacrifice has long been overshadowed by the sheer notoriety of the man who killed him, a blazing gun in both hands. His name was Norman J. Ryan – a career-criminal who had been freed from a life term in prison after appearing to have transformed himself into a model, reformed prisoner.
Due to his shock of copper-coloured hair, he was known as Red Ryan. He was also called Canada’s Jesse James – notorious throughout Ontario, Quebec, and the American Midwest.
Ryan and his colleague in crime on that day, a thug named Harry Checkley, were also killed in the robbery attempt – gunned down in a stairwell of the liquor store by Detective Frank McGirr and Sergeant George Smith – officers who had responded to the alarm with Constable Lewis.
In the ensuing 82 years, the legends and notoriety surrounding Red Ryan have grown. The name of Jack Lewis, with the exception of remaining family members and his brothers in blue, has been forgotten.
Thanks to President Ron RealeSmith and the Sarnia Historical Society, that is about to change.
Sunday, September 30, 2018 is National Police and Peace Officers Day in Canada. At 1 p.m. that afternoon, the public, as well as officers representing police services throughout the region, are invited to attend the unveiling of a plaque recognizing Jack Lewis’ sacrifice.
The plaque will be affixed to the building at 140 North Christina Street, the site of the tragedy. Part of Cristina Street will be blocked off to traffic on that day, and seating will be provided at the ceremony for about 30 Lewis family members and elderly citizens who wish to attend.
The dedication will be preceded by a multi-faith service at Redeemer Lutheran Church at 10 a.m. that morning. All peace officers are invited to attend, in uniform, as a show of respect for Jack Lewis’ memory.
That same morning, members of the Sarnia Police Service, the Royal Canadian Legion and the Sarnia Historical Society will speak from the lectern in churches across the city about Jack Lewis’ dedication and what his loss meant to the city.
It was the Sarnia Historical Society’s Ron RealeSmith who came up with the inspiration for raising the thousands of dollars needed for the bronze plaque to Lewis and the associated costs of a public dedication.
RealeSmith decided to have the Society apply to Ontario’s Attorney-General, prior to the recent provincial election, for a $1,000 reward for Ryan’s capture that had never been paid. The Society advised the province that the funds would be used to create a public memorial to Constable Lewis.
When the province, predictably, declined to honour the request, RealeSmith issued a press release decrying the decision.
Within 24 hours, anonymous donors contributed the funds needed.
Surviving Lewis family members have expressed gratitude that their uncle, great-uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather is finally being recognized by the city for which he gave his young life.
“I just wish Jack’s son and daughter were still alive to see this,” was the plaintive comment from one descendant.
Jack Lewis’ sacrifice was too great to ever be forgotten by a grateful city.