PEMBROKE — Storytelling wasn’t her profession, but Lois Lewis could tell a story with the best of them.
“She told a good story,” said Tom Lewis of his late wife. “She came from a family of good storytellers and was brought up with the art.”
The story of Lois Lewis’ life is likely every bit as compelling as the yarns she used to spin, and it’s one of the main reasons Tom Lewis made a major gift to establish the Lois C. Lewis Endowed Scholarship at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke after her death in May 2022. The scholarship will benefit students like Lois Lewis — non-traditional students who face unique challenges in pursuing a college degree. Preference will be given to female students from Fairmont, N.C., Robeson County, or an adjoining county who need financial assistance.
“Tom and Lois are an inspiring example to future generations of UNCP students,” Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings said. “Tom’s decision to create the Lois C. Lewis Endowed Scholarship will ensure his wife’s legacy of perseverance and love for education will live on. His thoughtful gift will open the door to a UNCP education for students starting their education later in life or those, like Lois, who are returning to finish one they started. We thank Tom for his generosity, which will transform the lives of countless students ready to make their mark in the world.”
In the late 1930s and 1940s, Lois Carlile was raised in a multicultural family in the Los Angeles area. She was influenced by her mother, Helen Carlile, who graduated from the University of Southern California and attended USC’s law school.
Lois’s cousin, Jean Erwin, recalls spending weeks at a time with Lois and her family.
“Our lives were so intertwined from the time we were born,” says Erwin. “Lois and I always called ourselves double cousins or sister cousins.”
Lois started college after high school but, customary for the times, soon got married and left school.
“It was almost expected that girls would marry right out of high school,” Erwin said. “She was eager to start her own family and have children.” Lois and her first husband, Jim Robertson, had six children together, and Lois worked hard as a stay-at-home mom.
But when her marriage ended, Erwin says Lois knew she was at a crossroads.
“She had to go from being a full-time homemaker, wife and mother, who had never worked outside the home, to being a self-supporting, independent adult,” Erwin recalls. In her mid-30s, after her last child started kindergarten, Lois returned to college, first at Pierce Junior College and later at the University of California at Northridge. She juggled work, her class schedule and keeping up with her kids’ busy lives.
Meanwhile, Tom Lewis’ construction administration and estimating career had taken him from his North Carolina roots in Fairmont to California. By the time he met Lois in 1973 and the couple married, she had completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in speech therapy, but she was not done with school. Even working as a substitute teacher and speech therapist, Lois went to college regularly for the next 10 years, often attending night school. Lois’s education even took her overseas one summer, attending a law school program in China.
Lois had the drive to learn, the ability to connect with people and an eye for giving special attention to those who needed it, all attributes that served her well when she eventually earned certification as a special education teacher. She also realized her path to a college education could serve as an example to other women who might face similar circumstances, Jean Erwin said.
“She was a mentor to so many women who were struggling to move from homemaking to the workplace,” Erwin said. “She was an inspiration and genuine friend to everyone, especially the countless young women she encouraged and guided on their journey to a new life.”
Tom Lewis had not earned a college degree when he and Lois married, though he had attended UNCP for a year in the early 1960s. “She got me going to school and I finished my degree. She made education contagious!”
Tom and Lois would eventually relocate to North Carolina, where she worked in the Wake County schools until retirement. As he considered how to honor his wife’s legacy following her death, Tom returned to her tenacity and generosity. And he firmly believed a scholarship award that would help students overcome obstacles was a fitting tribute.
“Lois was extremely charitable, and she made me more charitable,” Tom said. “She also liked the underdog. Lois would think this scholarship is the greatest thing in the world because of how the students’ lives will be changed during their time at UNCP. I see it as a real memorial to her because she went down this same road before them.”