Royce Lewellen, retired Superior Court Judge, winery co-founder, dies at 89
A model judge. A person of decision with utmost integrity. A generous philanthropist. These are just some of the ways the recently departed Royce Lewellen was described by those who knew him best.
Mr. Lewellen, a retired Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge and co-owner of Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards, died on Tuesday. He was 89.
Born in St. Louis, Mo., and raised over 100 miles away in Jefferson City, Mr. Lewellen fell in love with California when he served in the United States Air Force and was stationed at Edwards Air Force Base.
Mr. Lewellen’s father wanted him to return to Missouri to practice law and enter politics, but Mr. Lewellen never did.
With degrees from the University of Missouri and UC Berkeley School of Law, Mr. Lewellen remained in California and began practicing law in 1957 in Solvang, where he would raise his family.
Though Mr. Lewellen was a Republican, Democratic Governor Jerry Brown appointed him to the Superior Court of California in 1973. Retired Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Denise Debellefeuille tried cases as an attorney in front of Mr. Lewellen when she was working for the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office, and their paths crossed again when Ms. Debellefeuille became a Superior Court Judge herself.
She described him as “a model judge” with humility, an impressive intellect, and one who was courteous to all who entered his courtroom.
“He was a giant,” Ms. Debellefeuille said. “He was just so splendid. You can’t say that about a lot of judges, but he was close to perfect.”
Recalling the times that she tried cases as an attorney in front of Mr. Lewellen, Ms. Debellefeuille said the late judge made it very easy to do her job.
“There are some judges who really come down on lawyers and micromanage them and make it kind of a challenge. You want a judge who’s going to be fair to both sides. Royce was the model judge,” she said.
When Ms. Debellefeuille and her husband, Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge James Herman, moved to the Santa Ynez Valley, they became socially acquainted with Mr. Lewellen around the time he was setting up Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards in Solvang.
Remembering one instance when Mr. Lewellen was recognized by someone as a winemaker rather than as a judge for the first time, Ms. Debellefeuille said he was thrilled when people started to know him more for his new career.
“He was like a little kid at that compliment,” she said.
Mr. Lewellen’s well respected legal career was honored in 1992, when the courthouse complex in Santa Maria was officially renamed The Lewellen Justice Center.
Mr. Lewellen first met his Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards partner, Louis Lucas, in 1975 through the Santa Maria Wine & Food Society, an organization in which both men ended up serving as president. In 1996, Mr. Lewellen and Mr. Lucas formed their business partnership and were in business together for 24 years, during which the remaining co-owner said there “was never a major issue between us.”
“We put excitement back into the wine and grape business,” Mr. Lucas said.
Through Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards, the two men grew 24 grape varieties. When Mr. Lewellen tended to grapevines, Mr. Lucas saw in his business partner “a firm commitment” and “attention to details” that indicated why Mr. Lewellen was so successful in his previous judicial career.
“One time he compared pruning a grapevine to making decisions in court,” Mr. Lucas said. “He said that sometimes he was making a decision every 10 or 15 minutes. In pruning a grapevine, he was making a final decision every 10 or 20 seconds.
Mr. Lucas called Mr. Lewellen “a person of decision with utmost integrity.”
For the past 16 years, Mr. Lewellen was married to Ann Foxworthy Lewellen, who he had known for about 12 years before marrying. In an interview with the News-Press, Ms. Lewellen said she first met Mr. Lewellen shortly after she started working as superintendent and president of Allan Hancock College.
Mr. Lewellen was among the first people to walk into her office, when a group he was in inquired about starting a foundation to support the college’s PCPA Theatre. A deal was struck and the PCPA Foundation was formed.
She saw Mr. Lewellen socially after that, since they were both part of Santa Maria Noontime Rotary, and the two married in 2004. Ms. Lewellen remarked that her late husband always had an affable demeanor and was always gregarious.
“He was just very kind and always friendly with people. He’d just get into an elevator and he’d start talking to people,” she said.
One of her and her husband’s favorite things to do was travel. The Lewellens made about two international trips per year, mainly to countries in Europe. They also greatly enjoyed going with friends on hiking trips, which took them to countries such as Japan, Ireland, and France.
Mr. Lewellen also had a lifelong love of taking pack trips into the Sierra Nevada mountains, a passion that he shared with his sons Mark, Mike, and Dave, as well as his grandsons Bevan, Carey, Ian, and Gavin. He took his final pack trip into the Sierra Nevada in July 2019.
Mr. Lewellen’s long life and career consisted of not just public service and business, but philanthropy as well. In the 1970s, while still active in his legal career, he was among the leaders who raised money to build the Solvang Festival Theatre. Now, his wife is in the middle of a capital campaign to raise money to restore the venue he co-founded all those years ago.
As Ms. Lewellen put it, her efforts to restore what her late husband co-founded has brought his work “full circle.”
When asked what first attracted her to him, Ms. Lewellen said it was simply because her husband was “a pleasant, wonderful person, and someone I greatly admired.”