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Obituaries

Samuel Lewis, 80; Doted on -- and Pushed -- Jalapenos, Armadillos

January 21, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Samuel Thomas Howze "Jalapeno/Armadillo Sam" Lewis, the Texas-sized promoter who created jalapeno-flavored peanut brittle and bred armadillos for racing and facing off movie stars like Kevin Costner in "Tin Cup," has died. He was 80.

Lewis died of cancer Jan. 10 at his home in San Angelo, Texas.

Mississippi-born but Texan from the tip of his boots to the top of his Stetson, Lewis liked jalapeno peppers, but he liked armadillos first and probably better.

He was still a kid when he originally encountered one of the nocturnal burrowing mammals with the bony plated skin and grandly told "Uncle Slug," his seen-it-all relative, "We have a prehistoric animal on our hands."

From that time on, Lewis always had at least one or two armadillos around his house, though he conceded, "They don't respond very well to humans. They pretty much have a mind of their own." The only armadillo-free years were those he spent as a B-29 tail gunner during World War II.

Lewis helped operate a bakery and managed a pizza place before he finally figured out how to make a living with his favorite things -- jalapenos and armadillos.

He added the peppers to lollipops, peanut and pecan brittle, jelly, guacamole, salsa, relish, olives, ketchup and mustard. Never lacking boldness, Lewis asked the giant Texas-based UniMark Foods Inc. to help distribute his concoctions.

Instead, UniMark bought the Jalapeno Sam company and the rights to his products, then hired Jalapeno Sam. Lewis regularly crisscrossed Texas and the U.S., with a couple of armadillos to accompany him, touting jalapeno foods and giving away samples at discount and grocery stores.

He always drove, he said, because armadillos don't like flying.

They apparently don't like much else either, but Lewis became their champion anyway. After all, he began making money -- through bets, at least -- with armadillos a long time before he started selling jalapeno-laced candy.

He first raced an armadillo in 1951, against a horned toad. Nobody could remember which animal won. Then he paired one against a duck, and the armadillo lost badly.

Before too long, he settled on armadillo against armadillo, with the human tenders following behind along a six-foot by 24-foot course. Rules precluded physical contact, but the humans were allowed to encourage the armadillos verbally or by blowing on the hair on the backs of their legs.

Lewis, who staged races at 40 or 50 fairs and other events annually and even in Las Vegas, set up one for the Tracy Dry Bean Festival in California's Central Valley in 1990.

"The people in Tracy wanted something to liven up their festival, and they called me," Lewis told the Modesto Bee at the time, although he added that armadillos would rather eat insects and lizards than beans.

Armadillo Sam, who proudly asserted he had "known 'em and loved 'em since 1937," became an expert on the armadillo and shared his knowledge with such writers as James Michener, author of the epic historic novel "Texas."

Lewis caught them in the wild and shipped them to zoos, rented them to movie and television producers and such rock groups as the Rolling Stones, and provided them to scientists for research on childbirth defects, skin cancer and leprosy.

It was one of Lewis' armadillos that proved a hazard of sorts to Costner's run-down golf pro as the character tried to win the U.S. Open to impress a girl in the 1996 film "Tin Cup."

The armadillo breeder and wrangler was president of both the World Armadillo Breeding and Racing Assn. and the International Armadillo Appreciation Society.

So it was only natural that he browbeat the Texas Legislature until it finally, in 1995, accepted the armadillo as its official small state mammal. (The longhorn is Texas' official large state mammal, and the Mexican free-tailed bat is its official flying state mammal.)

During the battle for passage, certain legislators derided the creature as "a god-awful animal" or "lowly, mudslinging and cowardly" and said it was unfit to symbolize the state.

Lewis fired off a letter to the state officials, countering:

"The armadillo is determined. Once it makes up its mind to move, nothing will stop it. It will run over anything it can and tunnel under anything it can't. If it can't do either, it will jump straight up in the air. Now ain't that just like a Texan?"

A widower, Lewis is survived by one daughter, Kathleen Maxwell; one son, Samuel Jr.; six siblings and two grandsons.

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