Man of Many Firsts

Elizabeth Salaam

Russell Lewis, DPM '65, gives $10 million for scholarships in largest donation in SMU history 

Samuel Merritt University has received $10 million from the estate of Russell Odell Lewis, DPM ‘65 – the largest single donation in the school’s 113-year history. Lewis passed away in June. His transformative estate gift will dramatically expand the resources of the Dr. Russell O. and Antoinette M. Lewis Endowed Scholarship Fund, broadening educational access for students with financial needs and furthering SMU’s mission to diversify the healthcare field. The fund was first established in 2007 after the death of Lewis’ wife, to provide annual scholarships to nursing and podiatry students.

“This is a game changer for SMU and our students,” says Al Frisone, SMU’s vice president of Advancement and Communications, who estimates that the school will now be able to provide as much as $250,000 in nursing scholarships and another $250,000 in podiatry scholarships annually. “This will help us enhance diversity, expand enrollment, and continue to recruit the best and the brightest. It allows us to be much more competitive  with such a massive infusion of scholarship dollars.” Lewis, a beloved Bay Area podiatrist who practiced in the area for 35 years, often said the two greatest things to ever happen to him were marrying Antoinette and graduating from podiatry school. As the first in his family to attend college, and the only Black student in his graduating class in 1965, Lewis was driven and committed to his studies. “We’re over the moon not just about the generosity of this gift, but that it has come from a Black alumnus who is a trailblazer in so many ways,” says Frisone. “He and his wife didn’t have any children, and I think that future nursing and podiatric medicine students are his legacy.”

Beloved by patients 

A child of the Great Depression, Lewis was born in Sharps, Virginia, in 1937. Although his family lacked money and formal education, they valued knowledge  and  intellectual  pursuits. His father, a fisherman, was self-educated and spent hours reading encyclopedias. Both of Lewis’ parents encouraged their children to study hard. Russell, the  oldest of six children, graduated from high school at age 15. He was the first member of his family to  attend  college, and graduated from Virginia Union University with a bachelor of science degree in biology. After college, Russell joined the Army, where he served as a medical technician and lab specialist and became fascinated by the foot and ankle X-rays he processed for medics. This fascination eventually led him to SMU’s California College of Podiatric Medicine (CCPM). In 1962, Lewis married  Antoinette “Toni” Namoski, a registered nurse, the one true love of his life. The couple moved to California and Antoinette found work in the emergency room at Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. Lewis enrolled at CCPM.

Antoinette worked at Children’s Hospital for 30 years, and Lewis maintained several private podiatry practices around the Bay Area. They doted on Benji, their adored pet dog, and supported each other’s careers and hobbies. Lewis was a talented painter. Antoinette was known for her singing. Cherri Choate, DPM ’90, associate dean of SMU’s podiatry school, worked with Lewis at his Berkeley office before he retired. He was a man who laughed easily, did house calls for patients in the early days of his practice, and never turned a patient away, regardless of their insurance coverage, she recalls. “He came early, stayed late, and was truly, truly beloved by his patients,” Choate says. “I remember more than one patient of his who carried a photo of Dr. Lewis in their wallet.”

Students like him

It was a loss to the Bay Area community when Russell and Antoinette retired to his childhood home in Virginia, but the pair did not give up on California. They purchased burial plots in Union City, California, and made long-term plans to leave a significant  portion of their estate to Samuel Merritt University. In addition to the scholarship fund created in their names in 2007, Lewis helped to fund SMU’s state-of-the-art Motion Analysis Research Center (MARC), increasing the research capacity for podiatry students and others studying human motion and kinesiology.

“We knew we wanted to give back in a way that would help others to follow in our professional footsteps.” – Russell Lewis, DPM ‘65

“Both Toni and I were blessed by our chosen career paths. We knew we wanted to give back in a way that would help others to follow in our professional footsteps,” Lewis told the SMU Reporter in 2007. As a Black, first-generation college graduate who enjoyed a long, fruitful career in the medical field, Lewis envisioned a scholarship that would open opportunities for students like him: first generation, students of color, and those from underrepresented communities who want to enter the healthcare field. “We will tell Dr. Lewis’ story every time we deliver one of those scholarships to a student,” says Frisone. “They will know who he was, what he stood for, and why they are receiving this scholarship. We take our commitment, our obligation, very seriously to carry on his legacy in perpetuity.” The University plans to honor the Lewises with a commemorative space, including some of his artwork, at the new City Center Campus in downtown Oakland, which is scheduled to break ground in 2023.

Thanks for the Scholarship

“These pandemic times have put forward many hardships on students across the country. I, myself, am a first-generation student who has been facing financial hardship this year. This scholarship goes a long way in making sure I continue to learn and grow as an individual both professionally and academically. Receiving this scholarship has motivated me to continue working hard and finish what I have started. I also look forward to someday bestowing the same generosity towards several other students in the future.

– Abinav Leva, DPM ‘21, excerpt from a thank you letter to Russell Lewis. Today, Leva is a podiatric surgery resident at HCA Houston Healthcare Kingwood.

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