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Next lane, please: Duke Award winner Thomasine Lewis retiring

  • Million Dollar Smile
    Million Dollar Smile  Retiring Marketplace employee Thomasine Lewis flashed one to everyone she saw at W&M, and received just as many in return.  by Stephen Salpukas
  • "Hey, baby"
    "Hey, baby"  Duke Award winner Thomasine Lewis's pet name for everyone -- students, faculty and staff -- during her 49-plus years at the College.  by Stephen Salpukas
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It’s 11:30 on a Tuesday morning, not long before an expected lunch-hour crush that surprisingly never materializes at the Marketplace.

Still, there are enough wraps, taco salads, personal pizzas, sushi, overfilled baskets of fries and other college-kid delicacies to keep Thomasine Lewis and a co-worker pleasantly occupied at the cash register.

Behind her, a bulletin board sits empty except for her photo and the headline “Congratulations 2010 Duke Award winner.”

Established in 1997, the Charles and Virginia Duke Award is given annually to an outstanding member of the College staff who exhibits exemplary service and dedication to William & Mary. The award was endowed by Charles Bryan Duke and Ann Evans Duke, '57, in memory of Mr. Duke's parents -- Charles Joseph Duke Jr. '23, former bursar and assistant to two William & Mary presidents, and Virginia Welton Duke, former College hostess -- for their years of distinguished and loving service to the College. The award carries a $5,000 prize and the recipient is acknowledged during Commencement ceremonies each May.

College president Taylor Reveley invited Lewis to his home recently to give her the good news. He is a huge fan of this “grand lady.”

“One of the most valuable things a human being can do for others is to genuinely care about them and reach out to them in friendship and love,” Reveley said. “Thomasine's life at William & Mary has been spent doing just this, and we are enormously grateful to her.”

Lewis says she was so “flabbergasted” by the award that she started punching Dining Services director Matthew Moss in the arm, and couldn’t stop.

“I was shocked,” she said. “I didn’t believe it. It’s just unbelievable. My praise comes when they look at me and say ‘Thank you,’ or ‘How you doing Miss T?’ or ‘Miss T, you want me to get you a glass of ice water?’ That’s it. You never expect something like this.”

As the line begins to grow back at the Marketplace, Lewis reaches beneath the counter and pulls out two boxes.

One, long and narrow, contains unsharpened pencils in a multitude of colors. They have one unusual characteristic: the name Thomasine Lewis is stenciled in tiny letters on each.

The other box, a little squattier, holds two even rows of white matchbooks. Wait. They’re not matchbooks; they’re tiny notepads made to look like matchbooks. She offers them to every student, one more token of her love.

Lewis has been Mother Hen to the students of this university for 49-plus years. She’s swiped their dining cards and wiped their drippy noses; lifted their spirits and picked up their prescriptions; joked with the campus hotshots and assured the kids who thought they were invisible that someone had noticed them -- and cared.

“When you come to college, you don’t have many adult figures other than your professors that you get to know,” said Kate Wessman, a freshman from just outside of New York City. “It’s so nice to have someone in the morning check in on you before you go to class. We see her three times a day, and it’s always just really nice.”

Those days will come to their inevitable conclusion on May 12. That’s when Lewis officially retires, an event that was celebrated with an elaborate party on April 10. Sharmyce Davis, director of Marketplace dining, speaks for the staff when she says she doesn’t know what she’ll do without Lewis.

“There is something about her spirit,” Davis said. “When she’s not here, the place just seems gloomy. I’m still in denial that she’s leaving. The day we had her retirement party I told her, ‘If you just want a party, I’ll be happy to throw one for you. You don’t have to leave.’ “

There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of little stories people would gladly tell about Lewis and her random acts of kindness so sincere that they remain in people’s hearts for years.

Take the art student from India who graduated two years ago in December. Her parents weren’t able to make the trip. So Lewis “played mama,” as she says. She stood up for the young woman at Commencement, took her out to dinner the night before the ceremony, and threw a party in her honor afterwards.

“How many people do you know who would agree to act as someone’s parent, and do all of those things to make sure the student had a family-type graduation experience?” Davis asks.

In what seems to be a regular ritual, one graduate escorted his younger brother into the Marketplace and over to Lewis. After introducing his sibling, he advised his brother to “get to know this woman.”

“That’s my little curly-haired child,” Lewis says, laughing. “When I get into trouble with the law I’m going to call  (the former student). He’s going to be my lawyer.”

When Lewis noticed that Ann Repeta was wearing an ace bandage on her wrist, she immediately wanted to know what was wrong and how her recovery was coming.

“She’s always asking the personal questions. ‘How’s your family? How’s your hand?’ ” said Repeta, office manager in student activities. “She makes it a pleasure to be here. She’s just a joy to come and see every day. You walk in, you’re having a bad day, and that smile of hers just makes you happy.”

Lewis says she’s going to devote two days a week to helping out at her church, and has volunteered to return to the Marketplace once a week – without pay. First, however, she’s going to do a little traveling and spend more time with her eight grandchildren and eight step-grandchildren.

“I’m going to miss the students,” she said. “I won’t have anybody to talk to. I’ll be calling up here . . . When I’m off I call up here to see who didn’t show up, or who’s late. I’m a busybody.”

Why has she done it, put herself out there for so long to so many people?

“I guess I just love people,” she said, shrugging. “I love them because I want them to like me. I might need them to do something for me someday.”

That line of volunteers would run from the Marketplace to William & Mary Hall.