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William “Red” Lewis: Driven to leave a lasting legacy

Published: Jan. 14, 2021 at 3:28 PM CST
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - From humble beginnings to one of the greatest entrepreneurs Green Bay has ever seen.

William “Red” Lewis, founder of PDQ Manufacturing and inventor of the touchless car wash, was laid to rest today after passing away at the age of 78.

Since his passing a week ago Thursday, Red’s family has been overwhelmed by an outpouring of support.

“He touched so many people in so many different ways, not just as a business partner, not just as a friend, not just the white-haired guy that sat at the gallery and talked to people, it’s just so many ways that I didn’t even know or my family didn’t even know that we’re finding out now,” says Becky Lewis, Red’s daughter.

For a man who built an empire making sure cars were clean and shiny, his drive came at a very young age.

“When he was younger his whole family got in the car and they started driving down the street and my grandpa said, Bill did you shut that light off and dad said I don’t remember dad, and he said well get out, walk back home, make sure the light’s off, we’ll wait right here alongside the road, and he told us when we were younger, he swore right then and there he would make enough money he never had to worry about turning the lights off,” recalls Lewis.

After becoming manager at the local PDQ Car Wash in Green Bay in 1967, Red bought the business in 1974 and grew it into one of the country’s top full-service car wash operations.

But that was just the beginning.

“He really did want to know about things and he questioned, he questioned a lot. If he didn’t understand, he asked the questions. If he didn’t know, he found the person that knew the answers, and that just kind of perpetuated him,” says Lewis.

Frustrated with repair bills for broken antennas and scratched mirrors, Red founded PDQ Manufacturing in 1984 and within a few years it became the world’s largest touchless car wash manufacturer.

Red made millions, but he never changed.

“There are legendary stories about seeing him well after he had been a success in the car wash business, scraping bugs off bumpers, he was never better than the person standing next to him,” says Darrel Burnett, executive director of The Automobile Gallery in Green Bay.

Later in life, Red turned his hobby of collecting cars into a gift to his hometown, opening The Automobile Gallery in 2016 as non-profit.

“He often said the community has given us so much, don’t ever forget that, we have what we have because of the community, so don’t ever forget that and that’s why he did this, that’s exactly why he did this,” says Lewis.

“He knew what we wanted to accomplish, he knew how to accomplish it and then he went out and did accomplish it, that’s Red Lewis right there,” says Burnett.

A celebration of Red Lewis’s life is being planned for this summer at The Automobile Gallery.

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