Dr. Jerry Slater in a treatment room of the gantry at the Proton Treatment Center at Loma Linda University Medical Center on 6/21/06. The university has been a major recipiant of money earmarked by Rep. Jerry Lewis. (kurt miller/ the press enteprise)/KURT MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

BY BEN GOAD
WASHINGTON BUREAU
bgoad@pe.com

Published: 13 January 2012 08:28 PM

Four-year-old Jerry Lewis was standing at the back window of the small San Bernardino house where his family lived. There was water everywhere.

“I dropped a ping pong ball out the window. It fell about three and a half feet, it hit the water and the ping pong ball floated out the back fence,” Lewis recalled. “That was the first time I became aware of the significance of flooding and the need to control the power and availability of water.”

Lewis said his experience in the devastating floods of 1938 helped shape his belief that Inland communities had to be protected from flooding along the Santa Ana River. More than 60 years later, U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis attended the dedication of Seven Oaks Dam, a $500 million project to which he steered federal funding from his position as a senior member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

The congressman’s priorities as a lawmaker and appropriator in Washington often have stemmed from his experiences growing up in Inland Southern California. As the 77-year-old Redlands Republican prepares to step away in December after 46 years in public office, Lewis’ legacy is evident throughout the region, around the state and in national policies he influenced.

Scores of projects ranging in scope from community recreation centers to major military programs bear Lewis’ fingerprints, if not his name. In total, the funding he brought to the region via congressional earmarks is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. A precise figure is elusive, since his career dates to a pre-electronic record-keeping era.

“He was very effective in getting federal dollars for Southern California,” said Jack Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College politics professor who served as an aide to Lewis in the 1980s. “Jerry’s presence will be missed.”

LOCAL INFLUENCE

As a youth, Lewis learned to swim at a San Bernardino pool known as the Plunge. He later became head lifeguard, taught other children to swim and made captain of his high school swim team. In 1991, by then a veteran lawmaker, he learned the deteriorating pool had been shuttered.

Two years later, the pool was reopened, thanks to a $1 million dollar earmark secured by Lewis. In 2000, it was renamed the Jerry Lewis Family Swim Center and now serves tens of thousands of visitors annually in the working-class area.

In the early 2000s, a bark beetle infestation ravaged the San Bernardino National Forest, leaving mountain communities surrounded by millions of dead, bone-dry pines. Lewis in 2004 helped direct $200 million to a massive tree-removal campaign credited for reducing the fire threat. The funding was one of multiple awards he helped guide to the problem.

Of the scores of local projects and programs for which he delivered cash, Lewis said he is particularly proud of the millions he has funneled to Loma Linda University and its hospitals. That influence has eased people’s suffering here and abroad, university officials said.

“Jerry was a Peace Corps worker in India early in his life, and that has influenced his understanding of poverty, his understanding of needs around the world and given him a commitment to all of that,” said Dr. Richard H. Hart, president of Loma Linda University Adventist Health Sciences Center.

He credits Lewis for early support, and $30 million in federal seed money, to construct one of the first proton beam therapy centers in the country. The Loma Linda facility, which opened in 1990, has used precisely focused beams of protons to treat deeply embedded cancers in 16,000 patients.

“Many of these are people who could not be treated” otherwise, he said.

Hart said it was at the urging of Lewis that Loma Linda University took over management of the primary civilian trauma and orthopedic care center in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2005. Loma Linda officials ran the 200-bed hospital for four years.

AIR QUALITY SUCCESS

Before he was elected to Congress, Lewis spent a decade in the California Assembly, where he led a landmark effort to improve the Inland region’s air quality.

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