Lewis A. Sleeper, Jr. whose rich life spanned service in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, a career as a Life Insurance executive, and years of active retirement, died peacefully on September 9, 2013. Among his many contributions during the last 30 years of his life were the founding of a senior learning center at the University of Arizona, work for the Peace Corps, USAID in Africa, for the American Red Cross, and leadership positions in Habitat for Humanity and AXPOW. Lewis Sleeper, known as Bud growing up, was born in St. Joseph, Michigan on April 17, 1923. When his father's work ended at Whirlpool due to The Great Depression, Lewis, Jr. helped him and his mother run a small grocery store but also dropped out of high school. At 19, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and ran missions as a ball turret gunner over the Ploesti oil fields and Bucharest rail yards. Shot down in 1944, he survived by slinging a parachute bag over just one shoulder and was taken prisoner of war in Romania. After further surviving allied bombing, followed by German bombing when Romania surrendered, he and his many fellow prisoners of war were heroically rescued by allied B17s swooping in under enemy fire. Life as a Private inspired him to become an "officer" in civilian life. He returned to high school at the age of 22 and, helped by the G.I. Bill, then earned a B.B.A from the University of Michigan. For the next 30 years, in Detroit, Denver, Hartford, and New York, he raised a family and worked in life insurance sales and training, designing and leading a training program for The Guardian Life Insurance Company and then Mutual of New York. Retiring to Tucson, he looked for educational programs and, finding none, co-founded his own. The Senior Learning Center he started at the University of Arizona in 1989 is now a vibrant, far-reaching program of 75 courses, the SAGE society (Senior Advancement and Growth through Education), considered one of the country's pioneering institutes for learning in retirement. His work at the center led to recruitment by the Peace Corps, after which he continued small-business development work in Kenya through USAID. Back in the United States, he volunteered for Habitat for Humanity because he once shared a cab with Jimmy Carter and claimed he was the only Democrat he would ever vote for. Deciding to see more of the world, he volunteered as a cruise ship host. He traveled free, as long as he danced with the single women. On one of these cruises he met and soon married a nurse to one of these single women and began the best 20 years of his life. Back in Tucson, they both volunteered for the American Red Cross emergency relief program, flying to national disaster areas. Lewis continued to work for Habitat for Humanity, purchasing property for new housing on its behalf. He also indulged his childhood love for model trains, joining the Tucson Garden Railroad Society. Exhibiting year-round at the Botanical Gardens, hospitals, schools and the VA. He delighted in sharing his ever-evolving staging with astonished children. Cocktails at home were served by a model train running from the kitchen through the living room out to the patio. Lewis was active in the American Ex-Prisoners of War Organization where he served as SouthWest National Director. His last article for the EXPOW Bulletin, "Why is it Worthy for AXPOW to Survive?" appeared in the July/August 2013 issue. In 2012, he joined the remaining Romanian Ex POWs in North Carolina for their annual reunion. Lewis is survived by his wife, Janice Lee Sleeper; his daughters, Susan Thurston and Ann Adams; a stepdaughter, Dana Balk and stepson, Alan Papp; eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He will be buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Petoskey, Michigan, home to several Sleepers who have gone before. At the family's request, memorials may be made to American EXPOW Organization. Arrangements by BRING'S BROADWAY CHAPEL. You may leave condolences for the family at bringfuneral.com
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Published in the Arizona Daily Star on Sept. 15, 2013