First female president retires

Last week, Shirley A.R. Lewis had 900 children, but on Monday she'll be back to two.

As the first female president of Paine College in its 125-year history, Dr. Lewis, who officially retires today, always considered the students to be her children.

Under her leadership, Paine attracted big names to speak with students. The list includes Bill Cosby, Danny Glover, Clifton Davis, Cicely Tyson and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

But above all, Dr. Lewis said, she will remember the relationships she formed with her students in her 13 years as president.

"I think her love kind of trickled down to the faculty and staff, and that love trickled down to the students," said Shiona Drummer, a 2005 graduate who served as president of the student body.

Through that role she had the opportunity to work with Dr. Lewis and experience firsthand the bond the president had with her students.

Dr. Lewis is a "beautiful woman" with a great sense of humor, Ms. Drummer said.

She said Dr. Lewis' door was open to her students. Dr. Lewis even called to check on her when she was sick.

When Ms. Drummer was a freshman, the president already knew her by name.

"She definitely has led by example," Ms. Drummer said.

And she made an impression on more than just her students.

At the grocery store, people congratulated her on being the first female president, she recalled after coming to Augusta. And when she saw Archbishop Tutu in Cape Town, South Africa, after his speech at Paine, she reintroduced herself, and he bowed.

Now that she is retired, she plans to write her memoirs.

Dr. Lewis, 70, was born in Winding Gulf, W.Va., a mining town. Her parents divorced when she was young, but they were both active in her life.

She was introduced to higher education at a young age. Her mother worked as a maid for a family who lived in Harvard Square, and she later moved with her mother to Berkeley, Calif., where she would graduate from the University of California.

Dr. Lewis admitted that it won't be easy leaving her post now that Paine is in her "blood" and she has grown personally attached to the college.

"I feel as though I will always be a part of Paine even though I'm leaving," she said. "I'll be leaving physically, but I won't be leaving psychologically."

Her son-in-law asked what she will do now that she doesn't have her own administration, dining service and police force, she said.

That's why she has him, she joked.

Paine is continuing its search for its next president. In the meantime, Dr. Curtis E. Martin is serving as interim president.

"We're just hoping now to find someone who at least equals her," said the Rev. Nathaniel Linsey, a retired senior bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, a former Paine trustee and a 1948 alumnus.

He credited Dr. Lewis with obtaining more grants, offering more scholarships and expanding the college's facilities.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.