Gary Selfe Lewis, who expanded a family-owned janitorial supply house with consumer-oriented do-it-yourself extermination kits and other products, died of meningitis April 26 at Gilchrist Hospice Care. The Monkton resident was 72.
Born in Baltimore, he was the son of Earl Robertson Lewis, a business entrepreneur who founded Odorite Sanitation Service, and Sara Selfe Lewis, a homemaker and community volunteer. He grew up on Jonquil Avenue in Northwest Baltimore and in Towson.
He was a 1961 graduate of St. Paul's School for Boys, where he was the lacrosse goalie. He played amateur baseball and considered playing professionally. He tried out in a minor league baseball camp in Florida but soon joined his father in the family business.
Family members said that his father assigned him the task of visiting numerous bars and taverns in Baltimore, where he sold and serviced restroom deodorizing supplies. He realized there was a larger market in the janitorial supply field and soon enlarged the scope of the business.
"He liked to try different things and unusual products," said his wife, Nancy Cool Lewis. "He was soon putting out catalogs of his lines. He was a good marketer."
He also acquired larger quarters. He moved the company from West Conway Street in Southwest Baltimore to a former auto showroom at a busy traffic intersection, Mount Royal and Maryland avenues. He had the building painted a bright white with contrasting trim and outfitted its large show windows with floor polishers and hand-towel dispensers. The name Odorite was also displayed prominently. He worked closely with members of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association.
In 1990, he sold the Mount Royal Avenue property, adjacent to the University of Baltimore, to the school. The university wanted to expand its campus and when the school announced plans to raze the structure, Mr. Lewis supported its preservation. Preservationists launched a court battle to preserve the Odorite structure, but lost their case. The former Odorite site is now a student activity building.
Mr. Lewis moved his business to a nearby location on Maryland Avenue. He found his new quarters lacked some of his former location's visibility. He bought a sandwich-board sign and soon began displaying a saying of the day in plastic letters. Customers and passers-by submitted suggestions. He also kept a shelf of quotation books to provide him with hints.
"People would look forward to seeing it," his wife said. "It drew people's eyes to his business. He was quite proud of his sayings."
In 1999, Mr. Lewis retired after 38 years. He remained a managing partner of another investment, the Shenandoah Village Apartments in Martinsburg, W.Va.
In 1984, his son, Owen Lewis of Middle River, joined him in the business, which he continues to operate.
"My father was a high-energy man," his son said. "He brought janitorial supplies to the consumer market. He introduced a do-it-your extermination kit. Every city has its roaches and we sold hundreds and hundreds of [the kits]. My father grew the business from a deodorizing company by adding janitorial supplies and pest control products."
He said he sold floor polishing machines, heavy cleaning equipment and auto scrubbers.
He also worked with his potential customers. Family members said Mr. Lewis enjoyed following Maryland thoroughbred racing and often spent an afternoon at Pimlico or Laurel. He signed the tracks up as his customers for janitorial supplies. He watched the summer races at Timonium from a folding chair.
In retirement, Mr. Lewis spent time at Rehoboth Beach, Del. He also raised tomatoes, cantaloupes and cucumbers at his home in Monkton. He enjoyed being in wooded spots and built a log cabin in the upper peninsula of Michigan at Amasa. The cabin was on former logging property and was reached via a logging road.