Scene Magazine | Winter 2021
Ty Lewis knows tragedy all too well.
In the summer of 2020, just months after graduating from community college, and days away from beginning his studies toward a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Management at St. Ambrose, Lewis received a devastating phone call from his aunt. She was calling to inform him his father had died at the age of 47 while working as an over-the-road truck driver. A native of Stone Mountain, Georgia, Lewis had moved to Rock Island, Illinois, to live with his father at the age of 13. He was visiting his mother in Georgia when he got the call.
"I was so excited about starting at St. Ambrose," Lewis remembered, "but when my dad passed it was tough. I asked myself if I was really ready and with all the change and COVID going on, I thought maybe I should move down to Georgia to be with my mom and take a gap year."
The world is a lonelier place when a parent dies – especially when you're 20 years old – but when a community exists to provide support, the odds get better that an individual can survive and thrive in the wake of tragedy.
Community is what this story is about, because it was a community of family, friends, and caring individuals, many with direct connections to St. Ambrose, who collectively worked to bolster a young man facing the grief of losing a parent far too soon.
Too, there is an important and fateful twist to Ty Lewis' story that perfectly reflects the pay-it-forward impact and resonance of Ambrosian community. Lewis had enrolled at St. Ambrose just prior to his father's death through the grace of a full scholarship created by Quad City Bank & Trust CEO, SAU alum and longtime member of the Board of Trustees John Anderson '87.
As a member of the United Way of the Quad Cities Board of Directors, Anderson had been moved to action by a presentation on the unfulfilled potential of many local Black students infinitely capable of attaing a college degree, but ultimately discouraged by cost. There and then, Anderson decided to offer a scholarship and a QCBT internship to help a talented and determined Black student achieve their potential.
Ty Lewis fit the bill.
"Among many, many very qualified students, Ty's passion and leadership abilities stood out to me," said Ryan Saddler '95, '06 MEd, the St. Ambrose associate vice president for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
At Anderson's request, Saddler worked with Rev. Dwight Ford, the executive director of Project NOW Inc., a community action agency in the Illinois Quad Cities, to screen and recommend scholarship candidates. "Given his passion for finance and business, Ty was a natural for this opportunity," Saddler said.
Later, Anderson met with Lewis and his father and mother, and gained a full measure of the promising young man who wanted to continue his education following his graduation from Black Hawk College, but to whom a private college education seemed out of reach.
Anderson still gets emotional reflecting on the family's reaction to his offer of a full scholarship paired with an internship, and said lessons he continues to learn about all we don't know about the divisions between race and economic status gained momentum that day.
"They kept saying in the meeting, 'Seriously? We're not going to have to take out a loan?'" Anderson recalled. "There was a certain lack of trust, and I think that as a society that's something we need to work on, understanding the lack of trust that exists between different members of the society."
Later that summer, Lewis lost his father, and both he and Anderson quickly learned the things we have in common can be as powerful as the things we do not.
Anderson lost both of his parents as a teen - his father at age 13 and his mother early in his academic career at St. Ambrose. He persevered through the gracious embrace of the St. Ambrose community. With that emotional and financial support, Anderson earned his degree in economics and business administration.
He went on to build an impressive career in banking, plus a more impressive reputation as a gracious and generous community leader.
Years later, he found a perfect opportunity to pay forward the support he received as a St. Ambrose student.
None of this is lost on Lewis. Reflecting on the loss of his father and the challenge of that loss, Lewis exhibits the steel that defines him. "I realized my dad would not let me pass on this opportunity," Lewis said. "He had met Rev. Ford and Mr. Anderson, and when he died I was like, 'Man, I don't know what I want to do, but I know one thing and that is this: In my family nobody ever backs down from a challenge.'"
[My life has been] about pushing through and conquering, and after my dad died I said to myself that I was going to push through and take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I also had a tremendous community behind me offering a lot of support.
Since his father's death, Lewis has learned that challenge and opportunity can be different sides of the same coin. At St. Ambrose, he challenged himself to take on leadership roles: as a Student Government Association senator, treasurer of the Black Student Union, vice president of the Sales Club, and secretary of the Finance Club.
He also has discerned that this opportunity comes with the challenge of paying his good fortune forward. Toward that end, Lewis is counseling junior high and high school students as a member of the ministry organization YoungLife.
Lewis also is a member, alongside his mentor Anderson, of the United Way of the Quad Cities Board of Directors, and is assisting Anderson in weighing potential candidates for a second full St. Ambrose scholarship and bank internship.
He is not surprised by how far he has come since those very lonely moments in July of 2020. He knows he didn't travel alone.
"I took some time to grieve after my dad passed, but then I realized I had this amazing support system," Lewis said. "My mom, Fritz Diuedonné (SAU advisor for the Black Student Union), John Anderson, the Rev. Ford ... I knew that I had this support system. I was part of a community. John went through what I went through and he let me know I was not alone.
"My life has always been about people sacrificing for me," Lewis continued. "My mom had me when she was in high school; my dad put in long hours trucking so there was food on the table. It's about pushing through and conquering, and after my dad died I said to myself that I was going to push through and take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I also had a tremendous community behind me offering a lot of support."
Like Anderson, Lewis is intent on paying his good fortune forward.
"It would be a dishonor, if I didn't," he said. "If you receive blessings, you give blessings in return. That's what this life is about – a continuance of blessings."