This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.
After her father, Michael W. Lewis, died on May 14 in Fort Worth, Tamara Griffin was sorting through the belongings in his home. One discovery puzzled her.
“As I’m cleaning up his things, I see all these backpacks,” she said in a telephone interview. “And I thought, ‘Why are these backpacks here?’ And you’d open it up and see food and toothpaste.”
One of his friends explained the mystery.
“He would ride around and give these backpacks to homeless people,” Ms. Griffin said.
Mr. Lewis died of the novel coronavirus, his daughter said. He was 65.
That man distributing backpacks to the less fortunate had come a long way from the father Ms. Griffin knew — or, often, didn’t know — when she was growing up. He frequently wasn’t around because he was in prison.
“He spent several decades in and out,” Ms. Griffin said, “and I know this to be true because he was in and out of my life.”
But in recent years Mr. Lewis had turned things around. In addition to his personal backpack project, for some six years he had been volunteering with Welcome Back Tarrant County, a nonprofit organization that helps newly released inmates readjust to life outside prison.
Jerry Cabluck, founder and director of that group, said Welcome Back helped Mr. Lewis when he was released at Huntsville, Tex., after his latest prison stay. The organization found a bicycle for him so he could get to work, and soon Mr. Lewis had completed a long-interrupted college degree at Tarrant County College. And he became a regular volunteer at Welcome Home, counseling others coming out of prison.
“We saw 2,000, 2,500 a year, and this man was the exception,” Mr. Cabluck said in a telephone interview. “He became a role model.”
Michael Wayne Lewis was born on July 24, 1954, and grew up in Oklahoma City. Ms. Griffin said he fell in with the wrong crowd there and first went to prison on a minor drug charge. That began a cycle of repeated incarcerations that continued until, she said, he made a conscious decision to break it.
“He honestly said he didn’t want to die in jail,” Ms. Griffin said.
After completing his degree he worked as a mental health resource assistant. He also had a business selling and delivering smoked meats as well as a lawn-care business.
“He was a hard worker and wasn’t afraid of a little dirt,” Ms. Griffin said.
Mr. Cabluck said Mr. Lewis made a particularly strong impression when he spoke to groups of the newly released because of a keepsake of sorts that he had retained from his own incarceration.
“Upon release, they give you an orange bag,” Mr. Cabluck said, something to hold an inmate’s few belongings. “He kept that, and he would always use that. He’d be talking to a group of 20, 30, 40 men, and he’d pull that bag out, and he’d say: ‘Do you want this bag again? Do you want to go back? Do you want to go through all the drudgery of being incarcerated?’
“And that got their attention. Most of the guys, they threw that bag away.”
In 2016 when Welcome Back received a state award for its work, Mr. Lewis was among the volunteers and staff members who traveled to Austin to accept it.
Ms. Griffin summed up her father’s life.
“It’s not how you start the race,” she said, “it’s how you finish the race.”