Growing up in the coal-mining town of Beckley, West Virginia, where he excelled in sports, R. Fred Lewis, J.D. ’72, never dreamed that on June 30, 2006 he would become the 52nd chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court. He keeps a jar of coal on his desk to remind him of his roots.

“My grandfather and all the uncles were coal miners,” Lewis says, noting that his father, now 96, worked at a “tipple,” an aboveground facility for sorting coal.

“I thought I was going to be one of those youngsters from the woods who makes it as a professional baseball player,” says Lewis, who played baseball and basketball at Florida Southern College (FSC) in Lakeland, Florida, on a basketball scholarship and who spent his college summers working with kids at his hometown YMCA. His performance at FSC earned him an NCAA postgraduate scholarship, which named him one of the nation’s top 15 scholar-athletes. Then he got the itch to try law school.

“Back in West Virginia, in the community, folks would say, ‘If you have a problem, go see lawyer so and so. He can help you.’ I thought, ‘Hey, that would be a good thing to try,’ so I gave it an effort,” Lewis recalls.

The UM School of Law was where Lewis met his future mentor, the late Edward Perse, J.D. ’61. “I started clerking for him, and it’s just one of those wonderful experiences where by happenstance, you meet one of the finest people who ever walked the Earth.” Perse, an appellate lawyer, introduced Lewis to Larry Kuvin, J.D. ’58. Lewis practiced civil trial and appellate law with Kuvin in Miami until he became a justice on the Florida Supreme Court, appointed in 1998 by the late Governor Lawton Chiles.

Married since 1969, Lewis and his wife, Judith, have two daughters. Elle, a former Florida USTA tennis champion, is a civil engineer in Texas. Their younger daughter, Lindsay, 21, who lives with her parents in Tallahassee, suffers from lactic acidosis, an incurable mitochondrial syndrome that attacks the central nervous system and has left her hearing and sight impaired. “She’s a gift from God,” Lewis adds, noting that doctors did not expect her to survive beyond the age of 6.

During his years of private practice, Lewis often volunteered his time and knowledge counseling families of other special-needs children. He also provided countless hours of pro bono legal services to cancer patients. Lewis says these involvements convinced him that he “became a lawyer for the right reasons.”

A former longtime member of the Board of Directors of Miami Children’s Hospital, Lewis now volunteers with the Florida Law Related Education Program, which offers teachers and students insight into government institutions and fosters access between the public and judicial officers.

As chief justice, Lewis is committed to ensuring that Florida’s court system remain open in the wake of natural disasters, pandemics, transportation interruptions, and other threats. He also wants Florida’s courts to implement technology “in a good and open way that recognizes and protects the constitutional liberties and the privacy of the citizens of Florida,” and he wants to see better court access for the elderly and the disabled.