By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN – Lewis Cahoone Jr. sits in his garden paradise at the end of Pineland Drive and credits maternal nurturing with instilling an interest and talent in growing beautiful things.
“She took care of the yard and gardens,” he says. “My three sisters – two are deceased – and I took after my mother.”
Lewis, who retired June 29 as supervisor of the physical plant and grounds for the North Kingstown School Department, will have even more time to add to the towering floral displays, wending trails and handcrafted birdhouses he has created.
“I was with the School Department 40 years; a lifetime career,” he reflects. “It’s been good to me. I’ve worked with a lot of good people. I started as custodian at Hoskins Park school [now Fishing Cove Elementary] and from there had a number of jobs” in the system including that of assistant to Walter Kettelle, director of buildings and grounds.
When budget cuts eliminated his most recent supervisory position, Lew – as he’s known to friends – took retirement at age 60.
“I opted not to have a party,” says this supremely self-effacing man. “I went out the way I came in: very quiet, unknown.”
Lew has certainly been a presence in many aspects of civic life and also led a movement to offer an introduction to vocational skills to high school kids who are unlikely candidates for college.
“I was dismayed in the mid-‘80s to see the vocational part of the high school go away,” he explains. “There was no FFA [Future Farmers of America]; the wood and metal shops closed. It didn’t sit well. Three years ago, I was talking with the principal who was sending some kids to a program in Newport.
“I said it was too bad we couldn’t do something.”
After years of planning, six students began job shadowing, watching maintenance workers tackle a variety of projects.
“I wanted the kids to benefit; I was always interested in them. I love the kids. They were all good except for one who didn’t keep up his grades. Some of the maintenance crew bought in: they thought they were really accomplishing something.”
Sometimes the students got hands-on experience building things. Lew credits teachers Barry McPeake and Briand Lacroix with helping pull the program together and choosing the participants.
“This was the first full year for the program,” he notes. “I hope they’ll continue it.”
Lew has long been involved in the Memorial Day parade. He’s also a familiar figure at the North Kingstown Arts Council’s summer concert series where he sets up the open-air events – putting out orange cones, roping off the parking lot on Brown Street behind Rite-Aid and providing whatever the entertainers need.
“I used to go to the concerts and nine years ago I put a letter in to the arts council.” The job “grew and grew,” he says, smiling. “I love it. I have to be around people.” Nine concerts take place between June 1 and the second week of August.
Lew also sells popcorn, water and soda at the events. “Every dime goes back to the kids,” he says. They received such free treats as T-shirts and hula hoops.
He has two assistants now, grandsons Nicholas, 8, and Zachary, 5. “They’ve been my helpers since they could walk. They like to tell people, ‘My granddad runs the concerts.’” A third grandson lives in New Bedford and Lew frequently drives out to pick him up for visits to his peaceful getaway.
The grandkids, he says, always want to know, “Grandpa, why do you live in the woods?”
Remarkably, in what can only be called a Rhode Island story, Lew grew up on Pineland Drive only to return to the secluded, tricky-to-find byway after divorcing in 1996.
“I had to move and I remembered old Mrs. Lupo from my childhood. She was very big in the Democratic Party and was on the board of canvassers.” Elderly, she was no longer able to stay in her home and Lew gladly bought it, adding on to the house and transforming the all-gravel grounds into charming gardens.
“My mother would be proud,” he happily observes.
She should be.
Everywhere are beds of daylilies, ornamental grasses, sage, dusty miller, cosmos, salvia, hostas, giant sedum, sweet potato vines and annuals grown from seed started in his greenhouse.
Accent pieces include hanging baskets, birdbaths, strategically-placed chairs for admiring the view, an antique sharpening wheel and a trellis covered with colorful child-size watering cans.
Lew also has a towering Japanese maple that he planted, a grape arbor, and apple and peach trees. He puts up grape jelly, apple sauce, sliced peaches and makes an abundance of apple pies. He made cranberry-orange relish from the harvest of a nearby wild cranberry bog.
His property is surrounded by protected land that can never be developed.
“I was fortunate,” he says. “It all timed out right.”
When it comes to carrying out new design ideas and keeping everything ship-shape, Lew says he used to be “a busy little ant, running around getting things done. Now it takes me all day.”
For now, he’s enjoying the season and says of all the beauty he’s made and the fun they’ve had together, “I want to leave memories for my grandchildren.”
Sitting peacefully, sipping lemonade with a guest in his place of divine quiet, Lew says, “I went through years of being rushed. Now I live simply and simply live. I’ve had a very full life.”