From 1998 to 2005, Mac was teaching elective Mythology and Latin classes at a middle school in the Chapel Hill – Carrboro, NC school district. Although these were optional courses, they were popular and oversubscribed. During this time, he got his M.Ed in Latin and Education, and also participated in his initial Archeological digs. In about 2000, Mac began arranging summer trips for Students to Rome.
At time of Mac’s birthday in 2020, some of his former students had the following dialogue on social media.
I noticed on facebook that it was the birthday of Mac Lewis, my favorite and most influential teacher I ever had, while growing up. I was distraught to read that he has passed away. Mr. Lewis taught Mythology and Latin at McDougle Middle School, which I attended from 2001-2004, in Carrboro, North Carolina. I took Mythology as a sixth grader, and I’ve never been so inspired, never had my imagination so freed and spurred on to worlds I’d never known existed. He taught us new ways of imagining the creation of the Earth, of the mountains and seas, of good and evil. He taught us how commonplace English words and their cognates in the Romance languages have miraculous Latin roots. (“Lunatic” deriving from “luna,” which means “moon” in Latin, was particularly exciting for a 12 year old.) And he put up with a LOT. We got in trouble in his class to be sure, but not nearly as much as we deserved.
But for me, the most influential thing Mr. Lewis ever did was play the Cream song “Tales of Brave Ulysses” in class one day in sixth grade. I’m sure he only wanted to play a cool song that referenced a character we were reading about, and not be so ambitious as to change a student’s life forever. But that’s exactly what it did. I remember the moment so well. I’d listened to my parents’ rock music growing up, but something about *this* song, and maybe the place I heard it, once again opened my eyes to another unknown world, a world of music, that I could follow. That I *had* to follow. It’s hard to explain, but I don’t think I can point to another point in time, such a specific point in time, that became as meaningful a compass for so many years to come.
Thinking back on my first class with Mr. Lewis, I can’t believe how long ago that was. I guess I first took a seat in his classroom 19 years ago, almost to the day. (Also for the sake of perspective, I remember him sitting myself and my classmates down one September afternoon and telling everyone that two planes had hit the Twin Towers earlier in the day.) He was a few years younger then than my classmates and I are now.
I know these months have been terribly hard for the closest people to Mr. Lewis, far harder than for those of us who haven’t seen him in 15 years or more. But I hope his family and friends know that there’s a very large community of people from Carrboro, now in our mid-20s to mid-30s, who will no doubt carry Mr. Lewis in their hearts forever.
Gone where we can’t follow, I imagine Mr. Lewis journeying on, touching distant beaches with tales of brave Ulysses. Always as a teacher, always hoping for (and accomplishing) the unlocking of the imaginations of his lucky students.
Piere Cruz: wow, I had no idea! Man, I still remember him saying to never watch Hercules because it’s completely inaccurate.
Never Get Drunk At All (For remembering declensions)
And that movie we always watched the dramatic sword drop on a cape. All the stories with grumio … Man, RIP Mr. Lewis.
Liz Chambers: Oh no! This is a pic I have of ~da boys~ from when we were all in his home room together A very patient and sweet man for sure.
Joel Sronce: Wherever he is now he’s thinking of a number between 1 and 10. Always the same. Anyone else remember it?
Asher Gilmer: nooo what was it?
Matt Zeman: 4
Joel Sronce: Yes!
Asher Gilmer: Wow, thanks so much for telling us, Joel. I had no idea i always remember him calling me “Gilmer” and “Ray of sunshine” hahaha. Such a sweet and smart and patient, loving person. Thanks for commemorating him with this post and reminding us of all he did for us youngsters.
Liz Chambers: “Glimy”
Asher Gilmer: ohh yeah it was glimy!
Daniel Potter: So sorry to hear this. Thank you for filling us in. My favorite memory is getting to school late one time and all I wrote for the reason was “Left home late.” I remember him chuckling, and giving a look of “if that’s the worst thing that happens today, it’ll be alright.” He was a good man.
Clare Connolly: So sad to hear this. Ariel Sibert and I were OBSESSED with Mr. Lewis. I felt like he was one of the first teachers I had that wasn’t treating me like a “kid” (although in retrospect, we were all so young – ha!). It felt a bit like a precursor to college – getting to pick a class with interesting subject matter and be taught by a passionate and knowledgeable person. Sounds like he went on to do many more amazing things after McDougle! We were lucky to have him.
Joel Sronce: Do I remember correctly that Ariel Sibert and Mr. Lewis bonded over The Pixies in class?? He definitely was pointing out new horizons as we evolved from kids to whatever comes next
Ariel Sibert: Probably right. I was, and Clare, too, such a big fan of the Pixies. And of Mr. Lewis, whom we called lame precisely because we thought he was cool. I gave him guff about everything—his assignments, the Dylan poster in his office, his receding hairline—and all he’d do was laugh like I was funny.
It’s crazy to think he was so young then and still so comfortable in himself, such an innately kind and patient teacher. When I told him I was bored in class, he gave me a Yeats poem to parse and a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses. When I was failing, I got infinite chances to make up the work; he even volunteered to advise my independent study project, “Mythological Allusions in the Matrix Trilogy,” and did so with a straight face.
Clare’s right—he taught us like college-students-to-be, baby Classicists. The free-writing, quote-response exercises at the top of his classes were my introduction to philosophy. Mr. Lewis set Socrates and Seneca before a group of middle schoolers and asked us to respond in our own words—and then he’d add his own thoughtful comments to every answer we wrote. He took us seriously. He had faith in us. He understood that we were full of our own ideas about ethics, civics, moral philosophy, the good life.
Thanks you both for tagging me on this—it’s heart-breaking news, sad to know I missed my a chance to get to know him as Professor Mac. But I’m comforted that so many of us still remember Mr. Lewis. I’ll share some thoughts and dollars on his memorial foundation; hope my well-wishes find their way to those who it might comfort. I wish I still had the Roman coin he gave me for some in-class contest or other. I bet he found a lot more of those on his digs; if I run across one again, I’ll hang on to it.
Sean Brown: I just became aware of the terribly sad news that Mr. Lewis passed away. I’ve put some thoughts down below on what he meant to me as a teacher. He and his family are in my thoughts.
I took Mythology as an elective thinking I already knew a lot about it. It turned out that I knew the names of a few gods and goddesses, but my middle school brain was completely unprepared for how deep and rich the stories were, how vast the traditions around them still are, and how similar to me and my friends the mischievous Olympians could really be. Mr. Lewis taught us how to trace the origins of things we know across the ages and made me feel like I had unlocked a cipher for art and literature that was hiding in plain sight. At a time when all I wanted to do was express myself, I learned from Mr. Lewis that there’s a foundation I can build my stories and ideas upon. That I could make myself understood by putting the time in to understand ideas that have lasted through time.
Last year, I took a quick trip to London. My traveling companion was arriving late that evening, so I checked my luggage into a train station locker and walked through a misty rain to the British Museum. I wandered through the museum’s interior reconstruction of the Parthenon in Athens, then I turned one of the museum’s labyrinthian corners and found myself in the shadow of a very familiar caryatid sculpture. Instantly, I was transported back to a school trip I had taken in middle school, organized by Mac Lewis.
As our group huddled on the windswept Acropolis around the turn of the century, the tour guide said that some of the six ancient caryatids had been taken to London. At the time, I couldn’t fathom why the British had taken possession of them. Why would I need to go to London to see Greece’s treasures? This planted a seed in me: I would go on to be a history major and write my undergraduate dissertation on the psychology of British imperialism. Because of Mr. Lewis, I got to stand among things older than Britain or Rome and see the great arcs of history laid out before me. I got to hear the stories he told in class echo in the places they have been told the longest. It means more to me now than I ever could have known it would at the time.
As I’ve aged, I’ve learned that stories don’t get passed down automatically. There’s no guarantee that the myths that have been holding mirrors up to humanity for millennia will continue to do so in the future. It takes people like Mr. Lewis to be their conduit. I hope that, if nothing else, these words serve as my receipt for those traditions, and that I’m lucky enough to pass them on as he did.
Rob Greenberg: He was a wonderful colleague and friend while I taught at McDougle in the 90s
Lynne Tesh Koch: I adored Mac! I couldn’t make eye contact with him in faculty meetings …he would do something to make me laugh at an inappropriate time. He was a wonderful teacher and colleague. Knowledgeable and a wonderful curiosity for learning. His smile and laugh were infectious. May he rest in peace. To the family, my heart goes out to you. Light, peace, and love to you all!
Anuraag Pendyal: I was greatly saddened and shocked to hear of Mr. Lewis’ passing. I received the news as I was waking up in my tent between a series of backcountry hiking trips. I immediately thought of how active Mr. Lewis was himself, how he had loved the outdoors, and how young he still was. When we had him at McDougle Middle School, he was a few years younger than I am now. I remembered his smile (and I think I will always be very clearly able to), and realized that I actually think of him quite often.
I had Mr. Lewis for homeroom for three straight years in middle school and also had either Latin or mythology with him each of those years. I kept taking his classes because he was my favorite teacher. He would genuinely and earnestly engage with children, always laughing and upbeat, with a respectful and playful sense of humor. I too remember how he showed us Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses” and my mind was blown wide open to the world of psychedelic rock and all it subsequently entailed—for me a quick interest in music history and a desire to hear more new, surprising sounds. I remember some of the myths he introduced us to, and have revisited classic mythology, literature, and philosophy often through the years, undoubtedly in large part due to his influence at such an early age. He introduced us to parts of the world we never would have otherwise considered at that age, far away physical locations as well as ideas in art and philosophy. I remember how intrigued I was by the myths of the “halcyon days” and the Elysian Fields, and I recall how he when he taught us about these and other stories, he invited us to think of them through different lenses–historically, in the context of modern culture, metaphorically. He helped me to start thinking more symbolically and abstractly when I would not have otherwise had the chance.
I wish I could remember more details of our time together; it’s difficult, because it was so long ago and we were young. Fundamentally though, I’ve always retained a strong impression that he influenced and helped me in many ways. Importantly, I feel that he, like all my other great teachers, encouraged the imaginations of his students. It makes me happy to think how many students he helped through the years. We were all so lucky to have had him.
I wrote him on social media once when I was in college at UNC. He was at FSU; Joel and I were considering going to a basketball game in Tallahassee and wanted to hang out with him if we were in town. He wrote back and said to get in touch, but we never ended up making the trip. I wish we had gotten a chance to hang out, both so I could have thanked him and also because it would have been a lot of fun. I realized when I found out he passed away that I was hoping to see him again some day. We would have had so much to talk about, with I imagine similar tastes and senses of humor. There would have been a lot to share, and I’m sure I would have continued to learn from him. I’m sad that won’t happen. I am touched to see what a beautiful impact he had on other people, and would love to hear more stores of his life.