ST. PETERSBURG — A little more than a year ago, Rene Flowers sat inside the home of Lewis "Lew" Williams and asked him why he had decided to run for School Board.
"I want to keep the main thing the main thing," he responded.
For Mr. Williams the "main thing" was children. He spent more than 30 years as an educator in Pinellas County, rising from teacher to principal to school administrator. In 2010, he came out of retirement to run for the School Board.
He beat out two others for the seat, despite being outspent, said Flowers, a former St. Petersburg City Council member who managed Mr. Williams' campaign. He also was the only man and African-American on the board.
Mr. Williams died Dec. 3, days after undergoing heart surgery to replace a valve. He was 68.
On Saturday, hundreds of students, teachers, parents, community leaders and elected officials packed Greater Mount Zion AME Church to say goodbye.
"We didn't have to sell the product with Mr. Williams," Flowers said, tears in her voice. "He was the genuine product. … Lew was the main thing."
Mr. Williams was born April 6, 1943, in Georgia.
He was the oldest of seven children, supported by a mother who did day work to make ends meet. He was poor enough to receive free lunch. The family didn't have a car, a television or a phone.
But while in high school, a teacher took notice, and paid for Mr. Williams' freshman year at Allen University in Columbia, S.C. He later got his master's degree from South Carolina State and was working on his doctorate at the University of South Florida.
Once out of school himself, Mr. Williams dedicated himself to educating others, joining Pinellas County Schools as a teacher in 1970.
"There are many in this room today that know that if it were not for Lew Williams, they would not be where they are," said Goliath Davis, former police chief and senior city administrator.
Several people, from Mayor Bill Foster to past students, said Mr. Williams was a quiet yet effective mentor to many. They shared memories of a humble man who loved his family, his city, his job and fishing.
"His life really speaks for itself," said fellow School Board member Linda Lerner.
During the service, several people presented proclamations to the Williams family. A representative from Rep. C.W. Bill Young's office read a letter the congressman personally wrote to Mr. William's wife, Arthurene, and two adult children, Brandi and Brandon.
In between presentations, the gospel choir from Gibbs High School sang, as did Mr. Williams' brothers from the Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
"There's a sweet, sweet spirit in this place," Foster said at the beginning of the service.
That atmosphere matched Mr. Williams' personality. He often exuded calmness at board meetings and other functions, families and friends said. He was slow to talk and quick to listen.
"He was like a balm when you had a sore," said superintendent John Stewart. "He just made it better."
Stewart reflected on the last time he spent time with Mr. Williams, a few weeks ago. The two had lunch at one of Mr. Williams' favorite spots — Big Tim's Bar-B-Q on 34th Street S — before going on to visit Gibbs.
Every couple of hundred feet, people stopped them in the halls to talk to Mr. Williams.
"He was just the kind of guy who made you feel good around him," Stewart said. "We won't find another Lew Williams."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected].