Kenneth Lewis: Remembering a man who inspired so many

Mar 23, 2011 by

Kenneth Lewis and his wife Patsy had spent most of the evening in the pasture trying to get a new calf to nurse. It was something the couple had done countless times before at their ranch west of Tyler.

Helping young calves and young people get what their bodies and minds needed to thrive was a common thread in the life of Kenneth Lewis.

While enjoying fellowship with members of the East Texas Farm and Ranch Club the following evening, March 22, Lewis suffered massive heart failure and passed away a few days later. He leaves behind a legacy of helping and encouraging others.

“The stories of the students he helped would take a week to tell,” said Rev. Gerry Giles, pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Tyler, where Lewis had been a member for 71 years.

Those who worked with Lewis or had sought his help during his 45 years as dean of admissions and registrar at TJC are familiar with those stories.

David Thedford of Tyler credits Mr. Lewis with helping him to stay focused academically. Thedford recalled that Mr. Lewis also was helpful to his son, Russell.

“I had two sons who went to TJC,” Thedford said. “One of them told me one day that he was disappointed because he wasn’t going to be able to work his job and attend TJC the way his classes had been scheduled. I told him to call Mr. Lewis.

… He called Mr. Lewis and Mr. Lewis told him, ‘Russ, if you’ll come over to my house and tell me what classes you want to take and when you want to take them, I’ll put you in.’ Russ said, ‘But, the teachers said the classes are already full.’ Mr. Lewis said, ‘Russ, the classes aren’t full until I say they’re full.’”

Kenneth Lewis, center, is joined by, left to right, by Patsy Lewis, Janna Chancey, Pat Beam,
Mechelle Matthews and Shelia Jones at his 2005 retirement party.

Janna Chancey and Denny Yarbrough worked in the admissions and registrar’s office, respectively, with Lewis for many years. They recall having heard those words many times.

“It was all about the student to him,” Yarbrough said. “The kids came first.”

“The other side of that was that if a faculty member called in with a need, he would try to work with them, too,” Chancey said. “If they had a family issue and couldn’t help with registration, he understood.”

Long-time history instructor Linda Cross recalls that had she not encountered Lewis when she came to register for classes her first day on campus, she might have been discouraged and changed her plans altogether.

“When I went up to register that day, my daughter Suzanne was 3 years old and Caldwell School had just opened. She could go there 8-12, three days a week. So I was thinking I could register to take classes on those days and get off in time to pick her up,” she recalled. “Well, they just didn’t do things that way back then.”

Cross said the TJC rules at the time required a full schedule of courses to be stretched across a five-day schedule.

“He asked me what I was going to do on Tuesdays and Thursdays and I told him I wasn’t going to take classes on those days. He looked at me and said, ‘Cross … are you any kin to Jerry Cross or Newt Cross?’ I told him I was married to Jerry and that Newt was my brother-in-law. And that was all he needed to know.”

Both Jerry and Newt Cross had taken Lewis’s agriculture class, she said.

“Any kind of connections with a farm or agriculture and he was on your side.”

Years later, when Cross returned to teach history at TJC, she would seek his advice about ideas for class projects.

“It was almost like a father figure there on campus. He had a way of immediately putting a person at ease. Nothing was ever as bad as I figured it was. He was a good sounding board.”

Encouraging others seemed to be a specialty for Lewis.

“Enrolling in college can be very intimidating for someone who is 17 or 18 years old; I was 33 years old and had my moments of uncertainty and insecurity,” said Alan Nichols.

Nichols elected to leave the construction industry and set a new course for his life in 1996. His first step was to sit down and talk with Mr. Lewis, whom he knew from St. Paul United Methodist Church. Soon thereafter he had a student assistant job in the registrar’s office.

“If a student was having trouble getting the enrollment process going or was simply overwhelmed, Mr. Lewis would personally take the student through each phase of the enrollment process. If they needed financial assistance, he would personally take them to Financial Aid.  If they needed assistance in obtaining a transcript, he would take them to Transcripts. If they needed housing, he would personally arrange for them to meet with the appropriate personnel. In short, I learned two things working with and around Mr. Lewis: (1) if you wanted to go to college he made sure you got the opportunity; (2) life to Mr. Lewis was black and white or, more simply put, ‘right or wrong’.”

Nichols graduated from TJC with an associate’s in natural science and received a certificate in licensed vocational nursing. He transferred to The University of Texas at Tyler and received a bachelor’s degree in nursing, then continued his studies at Texas Tech University, where he received a master’s degree in nursing/acute care nurse practitioner. He has also completed post-master’s studies in geriatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston.

“To say Mr. Lewis was instrumental in my quest for an education would be an understatement. He not only gave me the opportunity to go to college, but also gave me the confidence and courage to do so. Going to TJC with Mr. Lewis’s guidance changed my life.”

Lewis with his grandson Luke and son, Larry.

To those who worked in higher education, Lewis was the respected authority on matters of a registrar’s office. He served on the state committee that wrote the common course numbering system and the state committee that revised reporting standards.

Duane Durrett, registrar at Weatherford College, recalled at the time of Lewis’ retirement party in 2005 that he had served as a mentor to others who work to register and account for student enrollment.

“If you think back to when he first started, so much has changed. He started out when schedules and class lists were hand written on a piece of paper, transcripts were hand typed. … From punch cards to online registration, he has been through it all, and in the course of his tenure, Tyler Junior College has flourished,” he wrote.

Among the many there to wish Lewis well in his retirement and thank him for his years of service to TJC was then TJC registrar Trey Hattaway. Hattaway had met Lewis at a Texas Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions (TACRAO) event when Hattaway was working for Texas Tech University.

“The effect he had on a room of professionals was nothing short of incredible,” Hattaway said. “When he started to speak, everyone, and I mean everyone, stopped their side conversations and listened. As I would come to learn, they stopped for two reasons. First, he knew and understood what he was talking about. And secondly, any response he had was one that considered students first and had their best interest in mind.”

Lewis contacted Hattaway in 2002 to tell him of an opening at TJC for a registrar.

“I had worked in higher education for more than 10 years but never in this area. So, I asked him why he thought he would want someone with no experience. He said, ‘I know how you deal with people and we need someone who will do what is best for people. The other stuff you can learn.’ It is the greatest compliment I have ever received, because in my opinion, there was no one better at taking care of people than Mr. Lewis.”

Chancey and Yarbrough echoed that sentiment.

“I had two premature babies, my father died, there were so many things that have happened and he was always so supportive,” Chancey said. “Family was always first.”

To this day, Chancey refers to her office as being “Mr. Lewis’s old office.” Chancey returned to TJC in 2006 to serve as executive director of enrollment management and was assigned the office Mr. Lewis occupied for his last 13 years at TJC.
“Sometimes it feels like I’m playing principal for the day,” she said.

In talking about her days working with Lewis, Chancey remembered that he would frequently use his own money to help a student in need. Cashier Janet Dennis confirmed.

“He would come over with his credit card, with the student, and he would pay for tuition, he would pay for dorm fees, for meals, for Phi Theta Kappa initiation fees,” Dennis said. “He even paid for graduation stoles. And he would tell the student that this was a gift and they didn’t have to repay him, but a lot of times they did. Students would show up – years later sometimes – and bring him money to repay him for what he’d done.”

TJC graduate Cliff Caskey had Lewis as an instructor for agriculture in the early 1960s.

“I remember that on the first day of the Ag Economics class, Kenneth said that he couldn’t believe he was teaching Ag Economics because he just barely got through the course at (Texas) A&M. After grading our first test, Kenneth came to class and asked how many of us wanted to farm or ranch for a living. All of us held up our hands, at which point Kenneth exclaimed that we would either need to inherit or steal the farm because we were not smart enough to buy it.”

Caskey said that when the Apache Belle Guards wanted to sponsor the first TJC all-college rodeo, Lewis provide direction and support. It led to the creation of the TJC Rodeo Club and a tradition that carried on for years.

“As many of Kenneth’s former students, I came to consider him a friend for life who was always interested in hearing what I was doing in both my personal life and my chosen career in the field of agriculture,” Caskey said.

Away from the college, Lewis was active in farming and ranching – his first love – and in the East Texas State Fair.

“What he did was unequalled by anyone else that’s ever been involved in the East Texas State Fair and the Junior Livestock Show,” said Lonny Uzzell, TJC board member and East Texas State Fair Association board member.

“He was the go-to person for rules and regulations, he was the person who scheduled all the events. … He worked virtually overseeing everything that went on at the junior show and there was never a single day that anyone can remember during the junior show that Kenneth was not at the fair. He came early and he stayed late.

“His commitment to seeing young people succeed through education was clear. He chaired our committee to give scholarships to students. … He was very passionate about that process and he had a long passion for working with beefmaster cattle.”

Last year, Lewis watched as his granddaughter, Abby, managed the Junior Beefmaster Breeders Association show at the East Texas State Fairgrounds.

“He had that familiar smile on his face that day,” Uzzell recalled.

Lewis served as president of the fair association from 1996 through 1998 and as executive director in 2006. He was a board member of St. Paul United Methodist Church and had served as president of the East Texas Farm & Ranch Club and as chairman of the Junior Livestock Show at the East Texas State Fair. He was a lifetime member of Beefmaster Breeders United and a member of the Northeast Texas Beefmaster Breeders Association. He was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Helping Hand Award from Junior Beefmaster Breeders Association and the Build East Texas Bill Clements Memorial Award for his work with the Smith County Livestock and Forage Improvement Committee and Smith County 4-H.

Patsy Lewis, Kenneth’s wife of 54 years, said she has been overwhelmed with the support received from friends, TJC graduates and former work colleagues and members of St. Paul United Methodist Church.
Contributions to the TJC Foundation and St. Paul children’s fund continue to pour in, she said.


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Features, Spring 2011

About the author

Fred Peters is the Director of Public Affairs at Tyler Junior College. He can be reached at 903-510-2627 or at fpet@tjc.edu