By Lynne Johnson
Royce Rutledge Lewellen, a lifelong Santa Barbara County community leader and the man for whom the Santa Maria courthouse complex is named, has died.
He passed away Sept. 2, 2020, at the age of 89 in Santa Barbara, California.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, but raised in Jefferson City, Lewellen graduated from the University of Missouri and UC Berkeley School of Law.
A retired Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge, businessman, vintner and philanthropist, those who knew him say his impact on the community was beyond measure.
“He brought people together. He was a great judge not only because of his fine mind and superior intellect, but because he was humble and genuinely loved his fellow man, and it showed in everything he did,” said James Herman, current Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge.
To honor him, in 1992 the courthouse complex in Santa Maria was officially named The Lewellen Justice Center.
In addition to his law career, Lewellen had broad interests, from business development, real estate, community service and the arts, to a lifelong love of pack trips into the Sierra Nevada.
He shared that love with his sons — Mark, Mike and Dave — and later with his grandsons Bevan, Carey, Ian, and Gavin, and many friends and young people. His final pack trip was in July 2019.
Lewellen was former president of the Solvang Business Association, Solvang Chamber of Commerce and Rotary, and was elected to the Solvang School Board
He also was active with the Santa Ynez Presbyterian Church. In addition, he was a member of Santa Maria Rotary, and served on the boards of the Santa Maria Valley YMCA and Family Services of Santa Barbara County, among others.
It was through the Solvang Business Association that he and other community leaders conceived of and raised funds to build the Solvang Festival Theater. That dream was realized when it opened in 1974. He continued his support through the years.
He also was one of the founders and a long-time member of the board of Community Bank of Santa Maria. And for years he was co-owner and a director of Contract Freighters, Inc. (CFI), a nationwide long-haul trucking company based in Joplin, Missouri.
Community Bank of Santa Maria Chairman of the Board Jim Glines’ friendship with Lewellen spanned nearly 50 years. For 20 of those years until his passing, Lewellen was actively involved in the bank’s leadership.
“He served on the executive committee and as the long-time chairman of our asset/liability committee. Royce rarely missed a meeting, and provided great insight and experience in his guidance of our bank’s direction,” Glines said. “He had a huge impact on all of us personally and professionally.
“Royce was a champion in life and a champion in the community.”
In 1996, he partnered with acclaimed viticulturist Louis Lucas to form Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards.
Lewellen’s Missouri farming roots nurtured in him an appreciation and enthusiasm for grape growing and wine. His decades-long friendship with Lucas later developed into a partnership that consistently produced award-winning grapes and wines with two tasting rooms in Solvang.
“We had 24 years of working together with never a major issue between us,” said Lucas. “We put excitement into the wine and grape business. We had all these ideas. For example, we had this hill on the Goodchild Vineyard that had never been planted to anything.
“I told Royce that someday I would like to put a Pinot Noir vineyard up there. Royce said, ‘Let’s do it!’ And the “High 9” Pinot was born.”
The generosity of his time and talents served many nonprofits well. In addition to Solvang Festival Theater, he was one of the founders of the PCPA Foundation at Allan Hancock College.
Former PCPA Managing Director Judy Frost said, “I have no doubt that without Royce Lewellen as the catalyst, there would not be a PCPA Foundation working to ensure the future of PCPA.”
PCPA’s longtime Artistic Director, Mark Booher, described Lewellen as a visionary leader and foundational supporter of PCPA.
“As a civic leader and man of letters, Royce had a passion for how dramatic literature explores and conveys deep-tissue values that extend far beyond the easily acknowledged skin-level enjoyments of play-going,” Booher said. “He loved and respected the PCPA company, and was deeply invested in the good of the students and the theatrical work they will carry into future generations.”
He added: “Royce personified the real meaning of philanthropist by his investment in and love for others.”
Lewellen also served on the Allan Hancock College Foundation’s board and co-chaired a major capital campaign.
His wife, Ann Foxworthy Lewellen, said, “It is clear Royce was a community leader, but I think it is more than that. I think his true gift within that leadership was to be able to work alongside others who shared his passion and vision to spearhead efforts to improve the community. Examples would be conceiving and building the Solvang Festival Theater and conceiving and founding along with Jan Severson and Bob Jurgensen, the PCPA Foundation,” she said.
Foxworthy Lewellen affectionately called her husband the Energizer Bunny: “His enthusiasm and his energy were truly remarkable.”
In 2010, the Lewellens were acknowledged as honorees at the annual Santa Maria Celebrate Philanthropy! event, which recognizes philanthropists who, through their time, talent and treasure, have made significant contributions to improve the lives of the people in the Santa Maria Valley.
It was while in the U.S. Air Force that Lewellen was stationed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He fell in love with everything about the state, and even though his father, (also an attorney) wanted him to return to Missouri to practice law and enter politics, Lewellen never did.
He stayed in California and began practicing law in Solvang in 1957. He raised his family there.
Although he was a Republican, he was appointed to the Superior Court by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown in 1973.
Lewellen was recognized throughout the state as an outstanding judge, according to Denise Debellefeuille, a retired Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge who worked with him both as an attorney in his court and later as a fellow judge.
“It was a great privilege to appear as a lawyer before Royce, because he was the embodiment of the model judge, as we in the profession call one who shows the qualities of greatness: He was patient, dignified, courteous, and fair to everyone who came before him.”
Judge Herman added, “It’s no accident that the Santa Maria court complex was named for him. He was our judicial hero.”
Fellow retired Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville said: “Judge Lewellen was an extraordinary jurist. He was intelligent, courageous, and had a wonderful judicial temperament. He was known for his integrity and commitment to the highest ethical standards.
“The same qualities that made him an excellent judge made him an extraordinary friend. He was a good listener and never revealed a confidence.”
Melville was a happy participant in many of Lewellen’s legendary pack trips.
He also commented on Lewellen’s commitment to the community.
“Once again the qualities that made him a great judge and an excellent friend made him a special asset to community organizations,” Melville said. “Royce was sharp, and was known to move projects along that had bogged down for one reason or another. He achieved this because he was always generous with his praise and quick to give credit to others.
“Words will not describe how much I will miss Royce.”