Essence of an Artist
March 18, 2008
TOBYHANNA ARMY DEPOT, Pa. - For over 26 years, a majority of the work force here have called him "Stretch." Some even refer to him as "Hey, Steelerman!" But what's the true identity of the man behind the wheel of the notorious Pittsburgh Steelers van, seen parked in the depot's K parking lot each day'
He's a man of many names, who takes on the role of father, husband, electronics mechanic, artist/interior designer and sports fanatic.
"If you dial Robert Lewis's extension and ask for him, the voice on the other end would tell you that you have the wrong number," laughs Robert "Stretch" Lewis, adding, "no one knows me by that name." He works in the depot's Command, Control and Computer/Avionics Directorate and is a resident of Pittston.
Stretch is known for his teardown/build-up and overhaul work on the various transmitters that are sent to the shop for repair. He harbors a creative, outside-of-the-box way of thinking and has contributed to the Army Suggestion Program by submitting and earning three suggestion awards.
With ergonomics in mind, Stretch designed four wooden stands that raise the transmitter chassis off the floor, so he and his co-workers wouldn't have to bend over to work on them. He also designed brakes for the wheels on the bottom of the transmitters, and an elevated turntable for the transmitter module, which makes it easier to gain access to repair the modulator.
Aside from his regular duties, he is most known for his artistic talent. When he worked in the Materiel Management Division (formerly the Automatic Storage and Retrieval System Division), he got the idea to paint something on one of the walls because "it looked kind of bland." Stretch and a co-worker went to work, painting a mural of the "robots" that are used for transportation and storage.
Since then he has become known for his ability to boost morale by contributing to and coordinating a myriad of decorations in Building 4, Bay 5. For over 11 years, Stretch has been able to liven-up his work area with his art.
"I'll see something I admire and think of a way that I can recreate it to how I would want it to look," he says. His ideas just come to him. He has never received any formal training, yet he can visualize what he wants to create, and "just make it happen."
Stretch has lent his creative talent to holidays such as Halloween, Christmas, Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day. "When he goes out of his way to decorate the bay I notice that it boosts the morale of the work force," says John Ford, branch supervisor. It is this reaction of co-workers that is the motivation for continuing the decorating tradition, says Stretch
"One year I decorated for Valentine's Day near the electronics' enclosure and people came to have their picture taken there," says Stretch. "That was pretty neat." An "I love you" heart is hung each February to celebrate the holiday. He plans to hang it in the bay this week.
Stretch says Halloween and Christmas are "fan favorites." Through the years he has created a Jolly Rogers pirate flag, a papier-machAfA witch, and a two-dimensional bat, all of which hang in his work area each October.
During the Christmas season Stretch sets up a platform, equipped with a train and mountainous terrain. A Christmas tree stands in the center of the platform and hangs strings of lights and disco balls from the ceiling to complete the scene.
For years Stretch has relied on two co-workers to lend a hand. "Mike Karsnak and Donna Spinley help me for every holiday, each year," Stretch says, appreciative of the efforts of his friends. Karsnak and Spinley are electronics mechanics in the branch.
He says the help isn't just limited to two people, though. "One time for Christmas I needed help with decorations. I asked everyone in my shop to lend a hand and they all helped," Stretch says, remembering the contributions of his co-workers. "Christmas decorations usually take a long time to set-up, but it's a lot of fun." Donations from co-workers help pay for materials and decorations. He thanks everyone for their help and commitment.
Stretch also says that if he is late putting the decorations up, his co-workers let him know about it. "This year I noticed a change in everyone's attitude. They told me, 'Stretch you have to get moving,'" he says. He does it because his co-workers get fired up and excited, and their attitudes "pump" him up.
Ford believes the participation of Stretch's co-workers not only motivates him to plan the annual tasks, but it also acts as a teambuilding exercise. "Anytime he asks for help, he gets it," Ford added.
"I only do it on breaks, and if I'm behind, I'll come in early, stay late or come to work for a few hours over the weekend to finish up," he says.
Co-workers aren't the only ones who get to see how creative he can be. He feels he really applies his artistic talents at home, for his family. When his children were younger, each year he constructed a new train platform featuring a different theme. One year Stretch made a mountainous terrain, entirely out of rocks. Another year he created a waterfall and pool on the platform, and added a few live fish to the scene. He says his family "really liked that."
Although Stretch is proud of his homemade holiday decorations, he beams with joy when someone admires the two, built-to-scale flags that hang in Building 4, Bay 5. Three years ago he constructed American and Prisoners of War (POW) flags out of wire, flour, water and paper bags.
He says the flags mean more than anything else to him because of the war. "I did it as a way to show patriotism and support for the troops and POWs," he added.
Not only does he have a passion for art, but he is also a very enthusiastic Steelers football fan, earning him the nickname, "Steelerman." For over 15 years he has sported hand-painted, Steelers-themed vehicles. "I asked my wife if I could paint an emblem on the car," explains Stretch. "She said no, but I did it anyway and it just expanded from there.
He says his mom initially refused to ride in sports-themed car at first because of the artistic paint job.
Since the 1980s he and Tony Ferreira have held weekly pep rallies during the football season. During morning break, co-workers gather to watch or participate in the affair. Ferreira is an electronics mechanic in the division.
When the Steelers went to the Super Bowl in 2005, the pep rally was a big hit. The week before the big game they were given permission to move the event to Building 4, Bay 6, anticipating a large attendance of depot employees. Stretch says he was pleased and overwhelmed by the turnout and support of co-workers and supervisors, "especially because the Steelers won that year."
Ford believes that Stretch's creativity is passed on, into his work. "This has allowed him to express himself while making his and others' jobs easier," he says.
As far as Stretch is concerned, he describes his contributions as "really nothing, just doing a little something" and says that he loves to share his talent.
Tobyhanna Army Depot is the Defense Department's largest center for the repair, overhaul and fabrication of a wide variety of electronics systems and components, from tactical field radios to the ground terminals for the defense satellite communications network. Tobyhanna's missions support all branches of the Armed Forces.
About 5,500 personnel are employed at Tobyhanna, which is located in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania.
Tobyhanna Army Depot is part of the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Life Cycle Management Command. Headquartered at Fort Monmouth, N.J., the command's mission is to research, develop, acquire, field and sustain communications, command, control, computer, intelligence, electronic warfare and sensors capabilities for the Armed Forces.