Would-be priest earns master’s 36 years later

Al Lewis studied in seminary but returned to school after retirement to fulfill a long-held goal to help others | May 14, 2004

As a boy, Al Lewis planned on becoming a priest so he could help others, but the demands of life—and the Vietnam War—got in the way. Now, after a career at General Motors and other odd businesses, Lewis is finally finishing what he set out to do so long ago.

On Saturday, he graduated with a master’s degree in community counseling, which means he can work in a job where he helps others.

Born and raised in Cincinnati's hard-core West End, Lewis dreamed of becoming a priest after seeing what a positive influence his local pastor had on the community.

"I wanted to be exactly like him," Lewis said, "which was a grand idea for a 13-year-old. I was eager to go to college."

After eighth grade, Lewis got his wish when the nuns at his grade school shipped him off to a seminary. He studied at St. Gregory's for three years but left in 1969 before being ordained and went to work for General Motors. Six months later, he was drafted and selected for the Marine Corps.

The idea that he was being trained to kill people didn’t set well with Lewis, who had imagined his hands being used for more nurturing activities.

“I really wanted to be a priest, but for me to have to kill someone was a traumatizing experience and I agonized over it,” he said. “It bothered me that these hands which were to marry and baptize people would be killing people, and I trusted in God and he worked it out that I didn’t have to go.”

Circumstances kept him stateside for the two years he was in the Marines, and he was discharged in 1971 without having set foot on Vietnamese soil. He went back to his accounting job at GM and went to school at Xavier full time to earn his bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1975.

When GM closed in 1984, he took early retirement, but because his retirement checks wouldn’t start coming until he was retirement age, he moved to New Orleans and became a painting contractor. Ten years later, he returned to Cincinnati to care for his ailing father and became a property coordinator.

But Lewis was still antsy. He realized that he wanted to do something more with his life, so he came back to Xavier in 2001.

“I wanted to work in a capacity where I could help people and counseling just jumped out at me,” he said. "I really like helping and working with people, especially those with mental health and substance abuse problems."

Coming from a family of nine children, Lewis is the first to attend college and receive a degree.

"I've been humbled along the path of education,” he said. “I've found out all that I don't know, but what kept me going were the great teachers at Xavier who picked me up and forced not only me, but the whole class, to be more and encouraged us to do more. It's really been an uplifting experience."

There were times when Lewis had reservations about whether going back to school was the right choice. "Oh God, every time there was a test or a paper I'd question what I was doing. How much more money? Is it worth it?" he said.

Lewis has worked hard to complete his degree, said John Cooper, director of graduate services.

“Al's just a tremendous person who's very spiritual and has a strong faith. He's got a will to help those who are struggling," Cooper said. "He's helped me understand, as a white administrator, how Xavier can make a difference in the African-American community because he knows the community and, more importantly, understands the needs of the community."

Along with achieving his masters, Lewis helped further develop and strengthen a graduate students of color association in an effort to attract more African-American students to Xavier, both graduate and undergraduate.

Lewis is extremely proud of his accomplishments and what they mean for his future. In his internship he has worked with people with mental illness and substance abuse problems, and “loved it,” he said. He’ll take the licensing tests this summer for professional counselor and chemical dependency counselor.

"The teachers kept calling us counselors and that's what got me through," he said.

His future is looking bright indeed. Lewis recently applied to the doctoral program in counseling at the University of Cincinnati and was accepted. Classes begin on June 21.