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Norman Lewis, 93; Helped Readers Build Their Word Power

September 26, 2006|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Norman Lewis, a leading authority on English-language skills whose best-selling "30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary" promised to teach readers "how to make words your slaves" in 15 minutes a day, has died. He was 93.

Lewis, a longtime faculty member at Rio Hondo College, died Sept. 8 of age-related causes at an assisted-living home in Whittier, said Ted Snyder, the college's former director of public relations.

The book, which Lewis co-wrote with publisher Wilfred Funk, is considered one of the most widely used and popular how-to books of its kind. First published in 1942, the latest edition appeared in 2003.

"There are a jillion vocabulary books now, but this one has stood up over the years even as vocabulary changes. It has endured because it's simple and it's good," said Helene Mochedlover, manager of the international languages department at the Los Angeles Central Library.

The book was one of 63 Lewis had written or edited.

Other better-known titles included "Word Power Made Easy," a vocabulary builder published in 1949, and "Roget's New Pocket Thesaurus in Dictionary Form" (1961).

Lewis told The Times in 1978 that the revised Roget's sold "like mad." At the time, more than 5 million copies of the pocket thesaurus had been purchased.

Despite his publishing success, Lewis often said that "writing is my job, but teaching is my recreation."

From 1964 to 1995, he taught English -- including grammar, etymology and vocabulary -- at Rio Hondo. For more than a decade, he also chaired the communications department at the community college in Whittier.

Averse to lecturing, Lewis would stand before a class without saying a word and wait for a student to speak.

"Students participated in the whole learning process, which is the way most of his vocabulary books were written," Snyder said. "They were filled with a series of exercises and quizzes that turned you into a participant."

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1912, Lewis was orphaned at 5 and raised by an older sister and her husband.

At 11, he published his first article, a book report that appeared in the now-defunct New York Telegram.

A self-confessed "terrible student," Lewis spent nine years dropping in and out of City College of New York before earning a master's from Columbia University.

"My brother-in-law was a physician and every time college got rough I wrote myself a note on his prescription pad saying, 'Norman is deathly ill and must be released.' You couldn't just drop out" without an excuse in those days, Lewis recalled.

"I tell all my students that story," he said. "That is why they love me -- 'cause I'm human."

He sold his first nonfiction work -- a quiz on the varieties of manias -- to Leisure magazine for $1 in 1939. A 15-year magazine writing career followed.

While a student at Columbia in 1941, he wrote his first book, a sixth-grade textbook called "Journeys Through Wordland."

In the early 1940s, Lewis wrote a monthly column for Your Life magazine that led to a contract with Funk & Wagnalls Co. -- and the promise that Funk would lend marquee value by collaborating on a book.

Eventually Funk "did two or three chapters," Lewis said. "I did the rest. I realized I was being had, but I thought it was a way to get started."

With Funk's name on the cover of "30 Days" and an advertising budget behind it, the book took off.

After teaching at City College of New York and New York University, Lewis came west to Rio Hondo. During the school year, Lewis said, he read about six novels a week -- and twice that many in the summer. He attributed the prodigious number to practicing what he preached in his writings, particularly "How to Read Better and Faster" (1956).

Lewis is survived by his wife, Mary; two daughters, Margie and Debbie; and two granddaughters.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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