By Katrina Koerting (published 7/223/13 in The News and Advance)
When most people remember Johnny Cash, they recall a hard man clad in black and baring his soul on stage with his guitar.
But Charlie Mae Lewis, 104, remembers someone much younger.
Lewis taught second grade where Cash went to school. She remembers how he would wander between classrooms at Dyess Colony in Arkansas, serenading teachers and students.
Although she never taught him or his siblings, Cash still stands out in her mind.
“I can just see him,” said Lewis, who lives at Valley View Retirement Community in Lynchburg.
“He has a sweet smile, and he played the ukulele. He brought it to school.”
Lewis said she had no idea at the time he would become a famous country artist, or be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
“He was average, just a little country boy,” Lewis said. “He loved music.”
Dyess Colony began as a government sponsored agricultural cooperative in the 1930s.
It had a post office, school and store in addition to the hundreds of acres of land for farms. Most farmers had 20 acres and raised cotton, Lewis said.
“It was in the boondocks, but I loved it,” Lewis said.
The school had between 15 and 18 teachers and each class had about 30 students.
Most of the children Lewis taught came from farming families and would work the fields, including Cash, who saved his earnings to buy a ukulele from Sears Roebuck.
Dyess Colony was Lewis’ first full-time teaching. job.
She had filled in for her older sister, Mary, after graduating from Arkansas State Teaching College I their childhood home of Dardanelle, AK, when Mary became sick. Shortly after, Lewis accepted a job offer from one of her former professors, who served as assistant principal in Dyess.
“She asked if I would be willing to go to the boondocks and I said I’d go anywhere for a job,” Lewis said, adding it was the Great Depression and any work was welcome.
She always wanted to be a teacher.
“It was just born in me.,” she said. Her love of children led her into education, she said. Outside of the classroom, Lewis had no children. Of her five siblings, only Lewis and Mary became teachers.
Lewis taught in Dyess for a couple years. She left in her late 20s or early 30s for Virginia, where she got a better-paying job in Washington, D.C., in general accounting.
Betty Dovel, Lewis’ niece, said she enjoys hearing her aunt’s stories. She visits Lewis every weekend at Valley View Retirement Community in Lynchburg, where she has lived for the past 12 years, and is often treated to a tale or two. “She remembers everybody,” Dovel said.