Wildcat Tracks: Conor Lewis ’07

Conor-Lewis-DocWestminster alum Conor Lewis wrote, produced, and directed a full-length documentary called “Dirty Laundry”. Released in 2018, the film uncovers the truth about Lewis’ grandmother’s early death from asbestos-related cancer. Working with his cousin Zack Johnson, the two men took a cross country journey via bicycle to interview family members and experts about mesothelioma. “We began looking into our grandmother’s swift death a few years earlier from a rare lung cancer,” Lewis said. “We started asking around and learned more about the cause of mesothelioma, asbestos, and how prevalent asbestos is in the U.S. We couldn’t find much in pop culture that referenced asbestos without joking about it. It didn’t take long before we were putting together a pitch based on learning more about our grandmother’s mysterious (at the time) passing from mesothelioma. We were lucky enough to then pitch it to the people we were working for at the time and they gave us the time off to go make it.”

So began a three-month, 4,200-mile trek to discover the truth. This was no easy task. Lewis worked with a lean crew. He directed and produced, Johnson ran the cameras and audio, and occasional gear transportation was done by a friend or Lewis’ wife, Molly. “The planning of it took quite a while to figure out. Before we started we had the first two weeks planned but didn’t exactly know what we were going to do from there,” Lewis said. ” It turned me into a super project manager! I figured out the places where we could stay, what towns were on our bike routes, and planned all of that around the availability of our interview subjects. If I am completely honest, the fatigue of the trip set in about two weeks in; at that point, we made it up as we went along. It was a true endurance task every day: wake up, ride for 5-8 hours, plan the next few days and interviews, then log footage, sleep, and do it all again. It wore me down particularly hard, both physically and mentally.”

Lewis got his start in digital journalism while a student at Westminster. “As a student, I was a very sensitive and big picture, creative thinker. I was lucky that WCA indulged my interest in all things digital: design, photo, video, and online. I was always on a computer or wanted to be using the newest piece of tech or camera. I’ll admit I was never the most technically minded, but these tools enabled me to make what was in my head come to life,” Lewis said. “Ultimately, I found a home in yearbook with Mr. Vonder Bruegge and AV Club with Mr. Kim. Both were safe havens for me to learn and grow; those classes made a huge impact on me. The skills I learned enabled me to go to college with a working knowledge of shooting and editing photos, video, and graphic design. I even maintained some relationships (shout out to my fellow alum Mike Rohlfing ’05) who ended up helping me on the film.”

During the film making process, Lewis discovered his grandmother, Iva Lewis, was exposed to asbestos from the simple act of doing her family’s laundry. Her husband was a pipe insulator who handled asbestos every day, leaving his work clothes covered in dust. Iva would shake the dust from his clothes before placing them in the wash, effectively signing her death certificate. It is Lewis’ hope that this film raises awareness of the dangers associated with asbestos, which is still legal in the United States. “Our goal was always to bring asbestos to the forefront for younger people doing home renovations or just living in urban areas. With the resurgence of reclaiming old schools, office buildings, and homes, we have seen a lot of improper asbestos removal and we worry about the health and safety of our children and friends.”

This amazing project not only brought closure to Lewis’ family, it has the potential to impact future generations. Lewis continues: “Every time we show the film in person we stand outside the theater and talk to almost every audience member. They tell us the same things over and over: ‘I had no idea!’ or ‘That’s terrifying!’ or ‘Thank you so much!’. We end up hearing so many more stories that have been overlooked, like our grandmother’s.” It’s been a consistently weird experience to have people thank you for making something. We are always so excited to show it to people that we want to thank them! It is a good reminder that we made it for the people we wanted to warn, our friends and neighbors.”

This alumni spotlight was originally featured in the March 2019 issue of our alumni newsletter, Wildcat Tracks.

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