At 100, teacher is not slowing

Former students and leaders pay tribute to Dr. Virginia Lewis.

Published February 11, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - The teacher and student sit in the corner of the classroom. It's not really a classroom, not in the traditional sense. There are no desks, chalkboards or lectern.

But then, there's a lot about this class that is not traditional.

The instructor, Dr. Virginia Lewis, turns 100 on Tuesday. She started teaching in 1924 and never really stopped.

From the time she was 5 years old, Lewis wanted to be a teacher. She was always playing school with her younger cousin.

Lewis grew up in Indianapolis. Her father was a preacher; her mother a housewife. She graduated high school at 15, moved to Chicago to attend teacher's college and received her certificate two years later.

The certificate enabled her to teach in Chicago public schools but it came with a caveat: She had to continue her education.

Summers and evenings, she took courses at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

There were few African-Americans enrolled at the school. One day her trigonometry professor summoned her to his desk.

"I have never had a woman, or a person of your racial background to be successful in my class, and I thought maybe, looking at your record, that you would like to withdraw from the class now rather than have a failing grade at the end of the term."

She got an "A" in the class, on her way to bachelor's and master's degrees from the university.

In 1950, she became a high school principal, the third African-American in Chicago appointed to such a position.

Ten years later, she was named an area superintendent, then an assistant superintendent.

Along the way, she also managed to earn a doctorate from Harvard University. She was first in her graduating class.

* * *

"Ow," one of Lewis' current students began during a recent class.

"What?" she asked him.

Lewis is in the Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College, a program for retirees who want to remain active and intellectually stimulated. Eckerd professors often call on members of the academy to talk to their classes or work with students. Their work is unpaid.

Lewis can't get around like she used to; she must use a wheelchair. Her students come to her apartment. She lives next door to Eckerd in a community for the elderly.

"Ow," repeats the student, Jae Hyeong Jeong.

Jeong, 28, is from South Korea. He has college degrees in civil engineering and police administration. He's in an English-language program for international students at Eckerd.

Lewis finally gets what he is trying to say.

"R," she says, rolling her tongue.

For the next hour, Lewis and Jeong go on like this until they are engaged in full-fledged conversations.

* * *

On Saturday, a line of people stretched from the foyer of Orange Blossom Ballroom to the sidewalk along Fourth Street N.

They flew down from Illinois, Maryland, Michigan to celebrate Lewis' 100th birthday. Most were her students in Chicago.

One by one, they paid tribute, saying she made them believe they could be whatever they wanted.

The name tags read "Dr." and "M.D."

Her friend, civil rights historian John Hope Franklin, delivered the keynote address.

"We need the likes of her today, as never before," Franklin said during his speech. "No child left behind? They're all behind, and that's one of the most distressing things about this country at this time.

"If we want to do something to enrich our lives, if we want to do something that we can dedicate to Virginia Lewis, we can commit ourselves to being vigilant, to being careful in what we do and say, and being committed to a policy of education where our children and their children can stand up with dignity and proficiency and understanding of their responsibility as we have conveyed it to them."

At the end of the celebration, the students presented Lewis with a book, Virginia F. Lewis: A Beautiful Dreamer. 100th Birthday Celebration.

In it were letters from former students such as Clyde Phillips.

"Because of you," he wrote. "I am."

Rodney Thrash can be reached at 727 893-8352 or rthrash@sptimes.com.