This month marks Associate Dean of Students Rick Lewis’ 30th year at Illinois State University, and also the closing of his career in higher education. Lewis will return to his first passion—art—when he retires January 31.
In preparing for his retirement, Lewis took a moment to look back at what drew him into three decades of work with students, and how arriving at Illinois State was, literally, was the luck of the draw.
“Being at Illinois State was an accident for me. Heck, even me getting a college degree was an accident,” said Lewis with a laugh. He sat back in one of the oversized, green chairs in the Bone Student Center’s Faculty/Staff Lounge, not far from his office in the Dean of Students Office.
Growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, no one in Lewis’ family considered college an option. “It was a predominantly black neighborhood, where you graduate high school, and then you get a job or go into the military,” said Lewis, who took a job as an animal caretaker in a biology laboratory at Wake Forest College.
“My job was to clean the mouse cages and clean the glassware five days a week,” said Lewis, who took care of nearly 100 cages a day. “Now, I got a little OCD problem, so those mice had some of the cleanest cages you can image.”
After several weeks of diligent work, Professor of Biology Raymond Kuhn pulled Lewis in for a chat, and found the young man loved to paint. Kuhn encouraged Lewis to show him some samples of his work. “So here I was, riding public transportation with some of my artwork to show Dr. Kuhn,” said Lewis, shaking his head at the memory. “When he saw the paintings, the first thing he asked me is, ‘Why aren’t you in college?’ It was that question that changed my life.”
With Kuhn’s guidance, Lewis applied to Winston-Salem State University and began college in January 1980. “For the next four and a half years, I rode the bus to my university and went to art classes, then rode the bus across town to Wake Forest and cleaned out cages, then went home and painted or did my homework,” said Lewis. “And that’s all I did—just bounce between those places.”
Lewis attributed his ongoing friendship with Kuhn with sparking his interest in graduate art programs. “I was spending all my time in the library looking up schools,” said Lewis, who began work as a graphic designer after he graduated at the top of his class at Winston-Salem. He leaned forward in his chair and lowered his voice, so not to be overheard. “After awhile, all that looking that got to be tedious, so I put names in a hat and drew out Illinois. Then I applied to Illinois State University.”
Accepted into the Master of Science Program, Lewis headed for Normal. “I sold everything I owned, put whatever I had left in a duffle bag, and boarded the bus to Illinois State,” he said with a small smile, seemingly amazed at the audacity it took to board that bus.
Along with taking a job at the Normal Public Library, Lewis applied for a graduate assistantship with the Office of Residential Life (then University Housing). “I was the only art major, and one of the few non-higher education administration majors, but it paid the bills, and people told me I was good at it.”
One of those people was Floyd Hoelting, then director of University Housing at Illinois State. “Rick Lewis is one of the good guys on this planet that takes the time to make a difference in peoples’ lives,” said Hoelting, who recently retired from The University of Texas at Austin. “He had a tremendous impact on all types of students, especially student leaders. I grew to love and respect Rick as a friend and a leader. He makes leadership enjoyable and fun.”
After graduation, Lewis moved into a full-time job as a hall director, and later hall coordinator at Dunn-Barton Hall. He then moved to Manchester Hall, and was promoted to area coordinator of west campus. “Over the years, I just kept moving up in administration, and getting farther and farther away from my artwork,” he said.
In 2004, Lewis became part of the team that formed the Dean of Students Office, and was named as an assistant dean. He was promoted to associate dean in 2010. Throughout it all, Lewis said it is the relationships he and other deans built with students that count. “Getting to know these students, especially African American males and females, I was able to assist them to overcome challenges they experienced, or perceived they experienced,” said Lewis.
One of his most notable accomplishments was creating the Mobile Dean on Duty. “Students look at it as strange, of course, standing out in front of Schroeder Hall and starting conversations with them. They don’t expect to see an administrator out there, calling them over and talk to them,” he said, gesturing to an imaginary student. “Yet it’s one of the things I really enjoyed—talking with them, and eventually building a network. And if those students may not need my help, they may know someone who does.”
Taking time with students is one of Lewis’ hallmarks, said Dean of Students Art Munin. “Throughout his career, Rick Lewis has been about fostering community and engendering student success,” said Munin. “There are countless Redbirds who have an ISU degree because Rick took the time to be their advocate, their cheerleader, and their motivator.”
Several generations of students still keep in contact with Lewis, especially those whom he advised in student organizations or traveled with on Alternative Breaks. “I don’t think I advised less than three organizations each year, and stayed involved with more. But that is just the nature of the job we do,” said Lewis, who also advocates for underrepresented groups on campus. “It’s been important to have a seat at the table, so the needs of our minority students and staff can be discussed. I’ve been lucky that our administration has always been open to sharing of thoughts and ideas.”
In honor of his retirement, Lewis established the Lewis’ Inspiration Award, a part of the Student Success & Excellence Fund, to continue to assist students.
Along with all those connections Lewis made with students throughout the years, he will leave behind another legacy—his art. Only a few feet from where Lewis sat in the Faculty/Staff Lounge hang portraits on either side of the fireplace with children playing. “Those are the kids of one of ISU’s vice presidents,” said Lewis, placing his hand on his chin and turning from the portraits, as though the attention to the mainstays of the room are unwarranted.
It was only a few years ago that Lewis decided to return to his first passion of painting. His first series of work, (In)Visible Men: Examining Stereotypes Through Art, started as exhibitions at Milner Library and the McLean County Arts Center, but quickly made the journey to galleries in Peoria and Champaign. The work drew the attention of the I Like Illinois campaign, which named him Artist of the Month for the State of Illinois. “It was actually pretty scary to pick up a paintbrush again after about 20 years of not painting, so I’m glad it has been well received,” said Lewis.
Lewis’ art will also be a permanent part of Illinois State’s history. In the spring of 2015, Lewis was asked to create the official portrait of President Larry Dietz that hangs in Bone Student Center. “When you think of going from a kid in North Carolina to having your portrait of a university president hang in the place you worked for years? That’s a huge honor, just like the last 30 years here,” Lewis said.