Turning Tragedy to Treasure
BY MAUREEN A. NOLAN; PHOTOS BY bob handelman
The new Adam J. Lewis Preschool is located in a formerly abandoned house in Bridgeport, Conn., where more than 35 percent of children live in poverty. Nearby streets are pocked with decrepit buildings, but blight is at bay along this stretch of Lenox Avenue. The preschool, with its wide, glossy door, adjacent playground and pristine landscape, is a scene-stealer. Inside, the place still smells new. The blue carpet is spotless, and the puzzles, books and blocks look like they just came out of the box.
The preschool provides a dozen children from low-income families a shot at the kind of early education that is widely considered to be critical for their future success. The 4-to-1 pupil-teacher ratio is the stuff of dreams for public-school teachers. And it’s affordable — tuition is based on family income, and parents pay as little as $15 a week per child.
The school opened in December, and while none of the children has asked about its namesake, parents have. In the eyes of the woman who knows the story best, it is as much about opportunity as it is about loss. “Adam was all about education, being a product of an educational opportunity himself,” says school founder and director Patty Dunne Lewis ’88. Her husband, Adam Lewis ’87, was killed in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The couple have four children; the youngest just a year old when her father died.
It took Patty, who is a teacher, roughly three years to create the school dedicated to her late husband. From finding a site to battling city bureaucracy and developing a curriculum, the process was arduous, but she says being impulsive and stubborn have served her well. She figures only an impulsive type would attempt such a venture; being stubborn makes it harder to retreat. As the school year ends, she’s strategizing about launching a summer program and expanding to 16 children next year.
Patty invested her own resources as seed money to bring the school to life. “I wouldn’t say I was lucky, but as part of the settlement after Adam died, I was given money in compensation, and I have to think that this is a great way to spend it,” she says. She continues to raise money through private donations and foundations to keep tuition low.
Patty is not as hard driving as Adam was, says friend Ana Goizueta ’90, but when she gets an idea in her head, she executes it. Adam was one of the most determined people Patty has known, and she thinks maybe some of that rubbed off. “That was one of the things I admired most about him. So in a way I hope he is looking down and saying, ‘She persevered through it all,’” Patty says.
Her late husband, who came from a family of scant means, got his break in junior high. His athletic and academic abilities earned him a scholarship to The Dalton School in Manhattan, and he ran with it. Patty wants to help disadvantaged children in Bridgeport travel as far.
Her first step was to find a location. She worked the real estate listings and drove the city streets for roughly five months searching for a suitable spot. The zoning had to be right, and the building had to have potential. When she finally found the abandoned Lenox Avenue house with an adjacent vacant lot — a playground waiting to happen — it felt “fateful.” she found the perfect builder, too, a man named Randy Hughes, who is also a minister and works with nonprofits. He’s an amazing, larger-than-life guy, Patty says.
Slowly, an eyesore was transformed and brought up to stringent codes. As the changes unfolded, neighbors would stop by to say thanks.
Bridgeport, like many cities, struggles with relatively high poverty and relatively low student achievement. Its four-year high school graduation rate was 66.3 percent in 2012, according to the Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition, which tracks the status of the community’s children. In context, the need looks worse. Bridgeport, the second poorest city in the state, is located in Fairfield, one of the wealthiest counties in the country. It’s like there is an invisible line between Bridgeport and the wealthy suburbs, says Patty, who lives in suburban Fairfield. The inequity is extreme and so is the need for more pre-K slots in Bridgeport, says advocacy coalition Executive Director Mary Pat Healy.
“There’s been a huge push on the state level for an investment in early care and pre-K, and additional slots have been opened up for our children here in Bridgeport, but we definitely need more and more access,” says Healy. “So this is really a great opportunity that she has afforded. And it may only be 12 children, but I’m sure down the road she’s looking to grow a really great quality program.”
The school takes a Montessori-influenced, hands-on and child-centered approach. Its basic mission is to teach numbers, letters and other early-literacy skills children need to fly high in kindergarten. It also focuses on character development. Patty says research indicates skills such as perseverance, self-control and self-esteem may be just as important as academic skills. The school’s third focus is social-emotional development.
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Goizueta sees both Adam and Patty Lewis reflected in the fledgling school. “I think he would have really appreciated providing a place for underprivileged kids to get the chance to be as driven as he was and make it as he did. And at the same time, it really is a complement to Patty’s background and passion, which has always been teaching,” she says.
In the later years of his childhood, Adam lived with his father, a lawyer of limited resources, in a one-room apartment in the Bronx. His parents had divorced, his sisters went with his mom, and Adam was making his way in new surroundings. He was a little guy with attitude; a punk, says Michael Keden, who went to junior high with Adam.
“We didn’t get along. He was a guy who was smaller in stature, and I think always felt that he had to prove himself,” Keden says. Adam would push to outdo everyone any way he could — on the football field, in class, everywhere.
When a recruiter from Dalton ventured into the Bronx in search of scholar-athletes, he zeroed in on Adam, Keden and a few other boys at their junior high. Adam’s dad made sure Keden’s immigrant parents understood just how important it was for them to get their son into the prestigious school, and both boys were off to Dalton. There, Keden grew to respect Adam’s relentlessly hard-working attitude. They both won scholar-athlete awards. The two became lifelong friends who shared a work ethic and a desire to succeed and win.
“That was sort of his approach to life,” Keden says. “‘I will work harder than you, I will out-study you, I will out-perform you. And at the end I’ll slap you on the back and buy you a beer.’”
Keden went from Dalton to Brown to New York University for a master’s degree in finance. Adam won a scholarship to Hamilton. “One of the things I loved about Adam is that he literally created his own path,” Patty says. “Yes, he got the educational opportunity from Dalton — and that was I think when he was in seventh or eighth grade — and after that it was all him. It was all his hard work.”
At Hamilton, he was a government major who, true to form, studied hard. He was one of the smallest guys on the football team. “But he was also one of the strongest,” says teammate Chris Letta ’87, who roomed with Adam for two years in Carnegie. Letta was a tight end, Adam a wide receiver. In the off-season when they worked out, Adam could lift as much as Letta and other guys who outweighed him by 25 pounds or more. “Endorphins,” he would tell Letta.
Patty, a psychology major from affluent Greenwich, Conn., met Adam on a cold Saturday morning. A friend cajoled her into playing on his snow football team (he was short on women) at a winter carnival. Out late the night before, she was trudging toward the assembled team, grumbling, when one of them, impatient, yelled across the field: “Are you Patty Dunne?” It was Adam, in charge, ready to play, tired of waiting. Patty made up for her reluctant start by intercepting a pass. She would joke over the years that the catch was the only reason Adam noticed her.
But from the start, he would tell Letta that Patty Dunne was special. Adam was fearless, and so is Patty, and Letta suspects that was part of the attraction.
Adam graduated and slid into a job at the investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, where he eventually became a senior trader. (KBW would lose 67 people in the September 11 attacks.) Patty took a job as an elementary teacher at a private school and earned a graduate degree. She taught for several years before opting to stay home with the kids. When she went back to work, it was in admissions. That’s when she began to think about how to help disadvantaged children secure an education that would get them into top schools.
Keden and Adam, both working in New York, stayed close. The Lewises introduced him to the woman he would marry, Patty’s grad school roommate. The couples lived in the same town, their children were friends, and they vacationed together.
In the days after the attack, when families of the missing still held on to scraps of hope, friends would visit Patty, and she would end up comforting them, Keden remembers. “It was just over and over again, a number of friends that they both had, and people who wanted to express condolences and sympathies who would just — as we all did — completely break down, and she would keep the strength, keep the focus, and help others during that time,” he says.
In the months and years that followed, Patty kept that strength and focus for her family. She set aside her career and, pretty much, her outside life. “After Adam died, I pulled in a lot. I kind of rallied, corralled everybody in, sort of shrunk into taking care of my kids, not doing a lot and just focused on getting by and surviving. And then I got remarried and that was another sort of task to try to figure out how to work all that,” she says. Patty married Jeff Kimball, a widower with two young children, and built a blended family.
All the while, she harbored an interest in the early education of disadvantaged kids. When she was ready to re-engage with the world, she had the time, knowledge and resources to do something with the notion. She jumped in, and as the project gained steam, it also gained support. “It’s like a little pebble rolling down a hill, and you get bigger as you go along and you gather more people. And the more people who jumped on board, the more we planned and the more we grew,” Patty says.
KBW, Adam’s old firm that suffered such tremendous loss in the attack, donated money to build the playground. John Duffy, KBW vice chair, who lost a son in the attack, serves on the school board.
A critical recruit was Julie Mombello, a teacher and friend from her days at the private school. Like Patty, Mombello is a volunteer, which helps keep overhead down. Mombello got involved because Patty hates public speaking and Mombello offered to handle that. Soon she was in deep as a teacher and chief administrative officer. What drew her in more than anything, she says, was the school as homage to Adam. “I’m sure Patty does, too, but I feel him all the time here with the kids,” she says.
Patty had support at home, too. Even though they had plenty of children of their own, her husband was on board when she told him she wanted to take on more of them, in her own preschool. The family’s oldest child, 20, is in college, and child number two, 18, is away at boarding school, leaving a mere four kids at home. “For us, that’s a breeze,” Patty says.
She worried initially that her children would feel neglected when she plunged into the school fulltime. How would they react if she arrived a little late to pick them up or if their dinners weren’t the best? As it turned out, the kids got interested, even invested, in the school. They’ve all spent time there, and her 16-year-old daughter will work there this summer. “Who knows?” Patty says. “Down the road if the school continues and grows and it’s successful, they may get more involved and maybe sit on the board or some of them work there from time to time. It’s a nice way and a nice place to connect with Adam in some way.”
After the first couple of weeks of teaching 3- and 4-year-olds, Patty went home worn out and stressed, convinced she’d made a terrible mistake. She hadn’t worked in a classroom in 20 years. As time went on, however, she found she was energized by the work and the children. Take, for instance, 4-year-old Allan. He was withdrawn when she first met him. His mom, an immigrant in difficult circumstances, was struggling with Allan’s needs until she discovered the Adam J. Lewis Preschool. Both he and his sister have bloomed. These days, Allan doesn’t stop chattering.
“He really, pretty much from the get-go, opened up. And he’s a really smart kid. Obviously, you can tell he has a lot to say, a lot of ideas in his head. So it’s just one of those really happy stories,” says Patty, who is convinced of the power of happy outcomes.
It sounds clichéd, she says, but one of the million things she’s learned since Adam died is that when something terrible happens, something positive needs to come from it, and for her, that’s the school. “I think that’s part of the recovery, personally, for me — to be able to come full circle,” she says.
She sounds ready to push ahead. An ambitious five-year goal, says Patty, is to have a high-functioning preschool and full-blown summer and parent programs. “Down the road 10 years, it would be great to buy another property and extend and grow,” she says.
Adam was always grateful for the opportunity he’d been given, and if he had lived longer, he likely would have created that kind of opportunity for someone else, says Adam’s old friend Keden. Patty went in that direction with the school. “I think it is a lovely testament to the things he valued,” he says.