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Epilogue | Virginia Lewis

Influence on students will serve as Virginia Lewis' legacy

On her 100th birthday in February 2007, Virginia Lewis received a surprise visit from her friend and civil rights historian John Hope Franklin at her home.


On her 100th birthday in February 2007, Virginia Lewis received a surprise visit from her friend and civil rights historian John Hope Franklin at her home.

ST. PETERSBURG — Virginia Lewis cast her influence like a quiet storm.

Faced with a mischievous child, she didn't raise her voice. She didn't bark orders. Usually, she posed a question.

"Why did you do that?"

After the thinking, the explaining, the reflecting, she'd toss out one more question.

"What are you going to do about it?"

• • •

Dr. Lewis, an educator whose career spanned more than 80 years, died Sunday. She was 101.

By age 5, she was playing school. By 15, she had graduated from high school. By 18, she had a college degree. After high school, she worked in Chicago public schools.

She went to Northwestern and earned a master's degree. She went to Harvard and earned a doctorate, graduating first in her class. The notion that she was a pioneer for African-American women didn't cross her mind.

"She was too busy with her life and giving back to the community to bother with that," said her goddaughter, Christel Butler. "Others had to bother with that for her."

Dr. Lewis became a principal in Chicago, where she shaped the lives of countless students. She was known for her gentle approach and desire to let students solve their own problems.

"She always listened to what you had to say," said Gaynell Burrell, a friend and student of Dr. Lewis' in the 1950s. "Then she said what she had to say and did it in a way that you didn't feel ashamed or wrong. You knew you had been chastised in a way you'd never forget."

In Chicago, Dr. Lewis rose to become area superintendent and assistant superintendent of schools. In 1989, she moved to St. Petersburg with her husband, Robert. She was married to him for 71 years before he died. The two had an adopted daughter.

They settled in a community next to Eckerd College and began volunteering there, teaching and mentoring students. International pupils often came to her apartment for help with English. She'd sit next to them in her motorized wheelchair and help them sound out letters and words.

Dr. Lewis belonged to Mensa International and kept learning new things through the Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College. She was known as the master of Cryptoquip puzzles. Friends would call her for the answers at the end of the day.

She loved climbing into bed in pajamas with her goddaughter and sharing a big box of chocolates from Fannie May in Chicago.

"We'd have a chocolate party," said Butler. "We'd eat chocolate and talk, and she would advise me. She'd joke, she'd share a zillion stories of her youth. She was so interesting to be around."

When she turned 100, hundreds of friends and former students flew in from all over the world for her birthday party. Civil rights historian John Hope Franklin gave the keynote speech.

"We need the likes of her today, as never before," he said then.

• • •

Gaynell Burrell called her former principal earlier this year.

She was quarrelling with someone, considering writing her feelings in a letter. Dr. Lewis, 101 but sharp as ever, listened calmly.

"Why don't you think about it for a couple days," she told Burrell. "Then call me."

When it was time to call back, Burrell had a change of heart — she told her principal she wouldn't waste anger on something insignificant.

"I'm so proud of you," Dr. Lewis told her. "That was the decision I wanted you to make."

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at or (727) 893-8857.


Virginia Lewis

Born: Feb. 11, 1907.

Died: Oct. 12, 2008.

Survivors: daughter, Joyce Gardiner; granddaughter, Beth Grigsby; three great-grandchildren.

Services: viewing at 10 a.m. followed by service at 11:30 a.m. Oct. 28 at Lakeview Presbyterian Church, 1310 22nd Ave. S, St. Petersburg.

Influence on students will serve as Virginia Lewis' legacy 10/14/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 21, 2008 7:29pm]
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