He was the quiet one on the Pinellas County School Board. The one who listened as his colleagues debated an issue, his fingers pressed together before him.
But when Lew Williams finally spoke, the others paid attention.
"He would pose a question in a very pragmatic way which usually brought a solution, and then we would move on," School Board chairwoman Robin Wikle said.
Mr. Williams, 68, a lifelong Pinellas County educator known for his gentlemanly manner, died Saturday (Dec. 3, 2011), three days after undergoing heart surgery to replace a valve. The only African-American on the board, Mr. Williams leaves behind a wife, two grown children and scores of people who credit him for impacting their careers in education.
He gave the head of the teachers union her first job. He made the former head of the NAACP a principal. And he taught board member Terry Krassner when she was in graduate school.
A retired principal who was elected to the board at the same time as Mr. Williams, Krassner said she felt "total devastation" when she heard the news. "I thought he was going to come back stronger than ever," she said. "He was always so stoic. I could tell he was not feeling good, but he kept going to schools … nothing slowed him down."
"I'm just stunned and heartbroken," said teachers union president Kim Black.
Black said in 1985, Mr. Williams, then the principal at Pinellas Park High School, hired her as a 22-year-old teacher fresh out of college. "He saw something in me that I didn't even see in myself," she said, crying. "He gave me a chance, and he gave me the resources and help I needed."
"In my entire professional life, he has kept in touch with me and still been a resource and a support for me no matter what position I was in," Black said.
Born in Blakely, Ga., Mr. Williams moved as a young child to the Orlando area. He grew up in public housing and felt the sting of racial inequality, but determined early on that education would be his key out of poverty.
There was a direct connection between Mr. Williams' humble beginnings and his goals as an educator, said Watson Haynes, a St. Petersburg College administrator who heads a group that advocates for black students in Pinellas.
In high school, Mr. Williams was told he wasn't college material, Haynes said. But two educators told him they would help pay his way.
"He was written off like some of our kids nowadays," Haynes said. "But these ladies reached out to him and said, 'No, you're not going to give up.' "
"That's what he did with every child. He saw the possibility in every child, when others didn't see it," Haynes continued.
Mr. Williams came to Pinellas County in 1970 after getting his bachelor's and master's degrees at historically black Allen University and South Carolina State College.
His first job was as a social studies teacher at Dunedin Middle. In the next 35 years, he went on to teach and lead schools at every level before retiring as an area superintendent in 2005.
Last year, Mr. Williams was elected to the District 7 seat, which includes much of St. Petersburg. It was his second run at a School Board seat and he won handily, despite being outspent by his opponent 3-1.
Mr. Williams cared deeply about those he called "struggling learners." He was proud of his work as a school administrator, increasing the number of black students in advanced courses.
Just recently, regional superintendent Barbara Hires said, he asked her to gather information on any and all programs, strategies and interventions that might help low-income students and black students.
"I'm going to continue to carry that torch for him," said Hires, who counts him as a mentor.
Ray Tampa, former president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, said it was Mr. Williams who first hired him as a principal in the mid 1990s. When School Board member Mary Brown announced she wouldn't be running for re-election last year, Tampa said he decided not to put his name in when he heard Mr. Williams would be giving it a go.
"Lew was quiet and effective," he said. "He was not one to shout and make a lot of noise. He was very, very diplomatic in his approach to his responsibilities."
In his short time on the board, Mr. Williams' vote helped sway the district in a new direction. When tensions rose over the leadership of then-superintendent Julie Janssen, Mr. Williams called for a candid conversation about her performance, saying board members needed "to stop playing patty-cake."
Two months later, Janssen was fired.
After retirement, Mr. Williams helped open a day care in south Pinellas. When he wasn't working or spending time with his family, Mr. Williams enjoyed fishing with friends — so much so that during his School Board campaign he would joke that he always had to check with campaign manager Rene Flowers before heading out on the boat.
Even when asking for votes, Mr. Williams erred on the side of politeness. If a voter didn't want to be bothered, well, Mr. Williams wouldn't. And if they needed an ear, he would listen.
It was the same way he governed.
"Lew's sweet spirit will be sorely missed as will his love of young people and the passion he carried for their well-being and learning," superintendent John Stewart said in an email to board members Saturday afternoon.
By law, Gov. Rick Scott will appoint Mr. Williams' replacement. Then voters, during next year's regular election cycle, will decide who will fill out the remainder of the term, which ends in 2014.
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8707.