CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified former Union College President Stephen Ainlay
SCHENECTADY — When she heard the news, Gretchel Hathaway could barely contain her excitement. John Lewis was coming to Union College, but she was under strict orders not to tell a soul.
“Stephen Ainlay, then president, walked into my office that morning and said, ‘You can’t tell anyone, but we got John Lewis to give our commencement speech,’” remembered Hathaway, dean of diversity at Union. “I said, ‘No, you didn’t?’ and he said, ‘Yes we did.’ I was so excited, but for a few days anyway, I kept it to myself.”
Lewis, an Alabama native and a U.S. representative from Georgia’s 5th District, died last week at the age of 80. A veteran of the Civil Rights movement who marched with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama, Lewis came to Schenectady in June 2013, and his visit and the speech he delivered that day will live forever in the hearts and minds of many in the Union College community.
“His topic was about building bridges and making connections, and he talked about ‘making good trouble,’” remembered Hathaway, referring to one of the lines most identified with Lewis. “The applause was just amazing. It was one of the most moving times for me ever. My heart just felt great. He was such a very special person.”
A Black woman who grew up in Yonkers admiring Lewis, Hathaway studied psychology at Manhattanville College and Yeshiva University in New York City, and then got her doctorate in social work at the University at Pittsburgh before heading to Union in 1998. Lewis’ death hit her deeply.
“It was like I lost a father figure,” said Hathaway, who also supervises the Office of Intercultural Affairs at Union. “Not in my every day life of course, but he gave me so many moments. He was such a social justice warrior. When I learned he passed away I called up my kids and the three of us talked on the phone about all the great things that he did.”
Hathaway not only got to listen to Lewis first hand that day, she was also given the responsibility of picking up the congressman at the airport and bringing him to the campus. Along the way they had lunch at the Ambition Cafe in downtown Schenectady.
“We were walking up Jay Street and he suddenly took me by the arm and we took a right into an antique shop,” remembered Hathaway. “He started telling me how his wife loved antiques, and he had tears in his eyes. His chief of staff was with him, but he was sort of invisible, and it gave me my own special moment with John Lewis. I asked him about his relationship with his parents, his mom and dad, and he asked me about my life. I was already in awe of him, but it left me with this feeling about all that he had done for this country, and I hope folks have figured that out. He really was a special guy.”
The Daily Gazette reported in its June 17, 2013 edition how Lewis had urged the graduates to “get into good trouble, necessary trouble, and help change America and the world.”
Melinda Lawson, senior lecturer in history and director of the Public History program at Union, remembered Lewis’ manner as much as his words.
“What struck me about Congressman Lewis was how genuine, how humble he was,” said Lawson. “Here was a man who must know that he is a hero to millions of people, and yet when I met him, he asked me about my life. When he met my husband, who was a civil rights worker in South Carolina in 1965, Congressman Lewis thanked him.”
Marsha Mortimore, a member of the predominantly Black Duryee AME Zion Church in Schenectady, didn’t get to meet Lewis, but she jumped at the chance to hear him talk. About 30 years ago in Selma, Alabama, according to Mortimore, she was also in the crowd listening to Lewis talk.
“I went to Selma with some friends to see him, and when I heard he was speaking at Union I wasn’t about to miss him,” said Mortimore, whose son is a Union graduate. “What an experience. Whenever there is an opportunity to hear a speaker like John Lewis, I’m going to try to get there. He’s such an interesting individual. I feel like we lost another part of our history with him gone.”
Bradley Hays, chairperson of the History Department at Union, was also at the school in 2013 and remembers how Lewis’ words seemed to resonate with the student body.
“I had the honor of meeting him and talking to him, and in chatting with him I knew that he was planning to publish an autobiographical graphic novel and so I asked him about it,” said Hays. “He became very excited discussing the project, why he decided to tell his story that way, and what it would mean to have a more accessible version of his experience for younger Americans.
“I thought that project fit in perfectly with his message to our graduating seniors,” continued Hays. “Get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. Given the events of the last several months, Millennials have made that message central to their aspirations to change the country.”
Like Hays and Hathaway, Lawson had the opportunity to see Lewis in a more intimate setting than just the commencement ceremony.
“A small group of civil rights students and recent graduates were invited to attend a reception outside President Ainlay’s house,” said Lawson. “Several traveled great distances to attend to meet their hero. One of them flew in from Florida. Surrounded by other invitees many of whom were high level college administrators, the congressman warmly chatted with each one of my students as though they were the VIPs. John Lewis truly embodied the idea of the ‘beloved community’ that was the core of his philosophy.”
A graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville who went on to get his bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University, also in Nashville, Lewis served his Georgia constituents in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1987 until his death on July 17. He was heavily involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963-1966. When King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Lewis was there. At 23, he was the youngest speaker of the day, and before his death last week he was the last remaining speaker still alive.
“His experiences, often harrowing ones, in the civil rights movement gave him unique moral authority on questions of racial, social and economic justice,” said Hays. “His moniker as ‘the conscience of the Congress’ was not just a reflection of his experiences in the civil rights movement, but a reflection of the ways in which that movement has become central to the ways in which the country understands itself. Where once it was radical, it is now central to the narratives of America realizing the values it promotes. To borrow from Langston Hughes, Lewis and the other civil rights activists of the movement helped America be America again.”
“He was very special,” said Hathaway. “Somebody else had the honor to drive him back to the airport, but when he was leaving the president’s house after the reception, he came looking for me and thanked me for taking good care of him. He didn’t have to do that. He was just a great person.”