Philanthropist Supports Education at Amherst

Philanthropist Supports Education at Amherst

Charles “Chuck” Lewis ’64 is best described as a bridge-builder. “Some people fill structural holes — I’m one of those people,” Lewis told me. Lewis learned this about himself as a quarterback at Albany Comprehensive High School, where he led a group of talented running backs, rangy wideouts and a “monster” center as a unit. Lewis, now in his seventies, can still shoot a basketball and continues to follow the same principles of leadership and bridge-building in his work.

Today, Lewis “pays to work” as an influential philanthropist in the world of education. Working with networks of financiers, nonprofits and academic institutions, the Lewis-Sebring Family Foundation, to which Lewis has devoted his retirement years, provides guidance and funding to organizations that attempt to equalize educational opportunity.

A Different Era Growing up in Loudonville, New York just outside of Albany, Amherst initially didn’t appear on Lewis’ radar — he had never even heard of the college until his senior year. Lewis’ football stardom was an unlikely turn of events, as he didn’t take up the sport until his junior year of high school. However, his natural talent was more than enough — it only took one visit to Amherst for Jim Ostendarp, then-coach of Amherst football, to notice Lewis. An admissions officer spoke to Lewis at the end of his tour. According to Lewis, “He said, ‘Well, if you want to come here, you’re in.’ I had not yet applied. That was enough to snow a high school senior. Things were a little different then.”

In reflecting on his time at Amherst from 1960 to 1964, Lewis highlighted some of the major differences between then and now, some of which he found negative. “People say that college should be the best time in your life — and I didn’t find it that way,” admitted Lewis. “The way I would describe the place back then was as a combination of an English boarding school and marine boot camp.”

He recalled memories of the old dining hall’s sparse offerings served on divided metal trays, early morning mandatory chapel services, maids cleaning dorm rooms and unforgiving professors, as Postwar habits blended with the “refinement and austerity” of an English boarding school. Back then, Lewis said, Amherst didn’t have the vibrant community that he sees today.

“In my four years at Amherst, I don’t recall an adult asking me how I was doing,” said Lewis. Even his academic life retained the same regimented nature, since Amherst had not yet adopted the open curriculum. Although some required courses pushed students outside their comfort zone, he noted that others were just boring.

Lewis credits English 102 — a required composition course known for its professor’s harsh and often publicly humiliating feedback — with developing his writing skills.

After Amherst, Lewis enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School, and after receiving a draft physical form in the mail, Lewis spent the next several years “dodging the draft from within the Army.” He served as an administrator in hospitals in skipping basic training and earning an officer’s salary, a role the army desperately needed filled during the Vietnam War. He also served in the data processing division of the Army Surgeon General, where his experience working during the summers in grad school at International Business Machines (IBM) helped him pass himself off as a “computer guy.”After the army, the technological experience he had gained led him to join a tech-services company — imaginatively called Computer Technology Inc. — where he served as assistant to the CEO. Upon the company’s acquisition, Lewis “talked his way in” to the Chicago office of Merrill Lynch, where he would remain for the rest of his professional career, eventually reaching the post of vice chairman, until his retirement in 2004.

An Unlikely Return There is an irony to Lewis’ relationship with his alma mater. Despite his negative experience at Amherst, he has remained involved with the college since graduating, serving as a class agent, trustee, chairman of the board and change-maker for almost 30 years. Perhaps he saw his post-graduation role in the Amherst community as a chance to remedy some of the problems he experienced — in particular the difficulties of being a first-generation college student.

Lewis’ interest in supporting education stems partly from a personal understanding of the importance of education to his own success, but also from the work of his wife Penny Sebring, an educational researcher and senior research associate at the University of Chicago. Together, the couple founded the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, which researches Chicago schools to understand how to better improve them. While education serves as the basis for the larger body of work of the Lewis-Sebring Family Foundation, the Meiklejohn fellowship directly relates to Lewis’ own experience at Amherst as a first-generation college student. The Meicklejohn Fellowship provides funding, advising and connections through the Loeb Center for Career Exploration and Planning.

“In starting something or sustaining something, it requires clarity as to what the organization is trying to do,” said Lewis. “The Meiklejohn fellowship is a perfect example of this.” The Meiklejohn fellowship attempts to engender a positive reputation, rather than one of deficiency, for first-time college goers.

“We’re going to guarantee fellows an internship during their first or second summer at Amherst. That’s a big deal,” said Lewis. He hopes to reverse the stigma around being first-generation, making it less of a hindrance and more of an advantage. Lewis hopes that this program will push Amherst forward towards a more equitable future, and will continue to ameliorate the ills he experienced.

A Passion for Education Lewis’ other notable influence on Amherst is his work in developing programs for future teachers at Amherst. The Careers in Education Professions initiative has its roots in the University of Chicago’s career center, which puts emphasis on providing opportunity rather than guidance. The Amherst program works in tandem with similar programs at the University of Chicago and Grinnell College, sharing resources and strategies. Even the name was carefully thought out — Lewis wanted it to mirror Amherst’s “Careers in Health Professions Program,” which helps students who want to go into medicine or other health-related fields. Lewis believes the way in which these programs are branded helps position them as fields of choice, and he hopes that doing so will help remove the stigma surrounding going into education.

“One of the ways to chip away at that perception is to have elite institutions like ours take the study of education seriously,” Lewis said. In addition, Lewis has been instrumental in creating the Education Studies Initiative, which seeks to formally integrate education studies into the curriculum. Visiting Professor of History and American Studies Leah Gordon credits Lewis’ work with “making Amherst a place where Amherst students realize the range of exciting work they can do related to education and … [that] education studies is very much an area of interdisciplinary study that fits within a liberal arts curriculum.”

Collaboration remains an integral part of his success. Lewis’ friends talk about his dinner parties, bringing together researchers, thinkers and activists, as being central to the way he operates. “All these things are small, but cumulative” Lewis says of his work. He believes in the power of places like Amherst to make considerable change.