Anne Stahel sits casually in the corner of her couch and pets her dog. She contemplates the question of how she managed to create, endow and lead the Lewis Award, which has profoundly impacted so many for more than two decades.
“In the core of my being,” she said, “I believe that when the blueprints for the universe were being drawn up, scribbled in a corner somewhere was, ‘There will be a teacher-of-the-year honor in the Diocese of Raleigh.’ I just happened to be the lucky duck asked to head it up!”
That honor, which is formally named the Monsignor Gerald Lewis Award for Excellence in Teaching, is an annual award that recognizes an outstanding teacher in the diocese. It has a sister award, too, which recognizes lifetime achievement.
While Mrs. Stahel may refer to herself simply as the “lucky duck,” it is clear to everyone around her that she’s more than her own humble description.
“Anne is the Lewis Award!” says Rosalie Innacelli, winner of the 2014 Lifetime Achievement in Education and former assistant superintendent of schools. “Anne is witty, charming and an incredibly strong woman with a vision. She is dauntless in making her vision a reality.”
To that “dauntless” bit, Mrs. Stahel would agree. “The word ‘no,’ is not in my lexicon,” she smiles.
The Lewis Award was inspired both as a way to honor the legacy of her husband, Ed Stahel, who worked in university education, and as a show of gratitude to Monsignor Jerry Lewis.
Though longtime friends as priest and parishioner, it was tragedy that cemented the bond between the Stahel family and Monsignor Lewis. When Mrs. Stahel’s cousin, Patricia Grimes, was murdered in 1972, Dr. and Mrs. Stahel were overwhelmed with the devastation felt in the Grimes’ home. They turned to (then) Father Lewis who dropped everything and cared for the family. Years later, Monsignor Lewis offered strength and comfort as Mrs. Stahel buried 15 loved ones—including her husband—in fewer than five years.
“When Ed passed away, Ralph Nader, Ed’s roommate at Princeton, suggested I create an endowment or scholarship in Ed’s memory. At the same time, I was trying to find a meaningful way to say ‘thank you’ to Reverend Jerry Lewis for all that he had done for my family,” she said. “I wanted to find a need within the diocese of Raleigh that could honor both of them. Ed was an educator, and Jerry was such a strong proponent of education. Eureka! A teacher of the year award.”
Twenty-five years later, the Lewis Award has touched countless lives and has inspired teachers across the state to continue to follow their passion.
Marilyn Stuit is a fifth grade teacher at St. Thomas More Catholic School in Chapel Hill and the 2016 Excellence in Teaching Award recipient. She said, “Receiving the Lewis Award was an honored blessing. It reaffirms the importance of what I do every day and makes me strive to be my best.”
Monsignor Lewis added, “Our teachers are so often overlooked and taken for granted. In so many ways, teachers are the very backbone of our society. Anne Stahel, while setting up this award for teachers in Catholic schools, has honored all teachers and the teaching profession.”
The important role of educators is ever-present in Mrs. Stahel’s thoughts. She treasures cards that she received from her husband’s students after his passing. Many of the cards, she said, stated the profound impact he had on their lives.
The Lewis Award, she said, is special because it honors people while they can still hear it.
“I have come to the belief that you should give flowers to people when they can smell them,” she said. “Lee Iacocca said, ‘In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers, and the rest of us would have to settle for something else.’ I love that quote and I use it often in my remarks.”
As far as those remarks, she has been giving them for 25 years at events such as Masses that honor award recipients. When asked about herself, though, she humbly continues to redirect conversation to teachers, the inspiration for the award, or to her dogs. (Interestingly, one is named after Monsignor Lewis because, she joked, he once lamented that of all the babies he baptized, not one was named after him.)
When pressed to talk about herself and thoughts on her retirement, she just smiles with twinkling eyes.
“I am not going anywhere … [but] after 25 years, it is time for ‘new blood,’ fresh ideas [and a] younger generation that’s savvy with social media. … not to mention friskier than I,” she said. “Also, in turning over the reins now, I will be around to be a resource, sounding board and advisor in the transition into the future for the Lewis Award.”
The Lewis Award is an honor born from a friendship between a family and their priest who shepherded them during a dark time. It is a recognition inspired by Dr. Stahel’s love of education. But, most of all, it is an event and a legacy created by a woman who took friendship and inspiration and, with a lot of faith and a little grit, welded it into a tradition that will continue to recognize ‘the best of us.’
Lewis Award recipients applaud Anne
“Throughout the whole process, Anne was a shining light. She can leave knowing she leaves a piece of her heart with all of us.” - Cindi Messina, St. Raphael School, Raleigh
“Anne is such a wonderfully positive woman. The time she puts into this award is truly remarkable! I hate to see her retire, but I’m happy for her and [happy] that her legacy will continue.” - Marilyn Stuit, St. Thomas More School, Chapel Hill
“The number one joy of receiving the Lewis Award is the great honor of getting to know Anne Stahel. I will be eternally grateful for the opportunity to join the circle of people that she has blessed with her friendship.” - Joan Troy, Cardinal Gibbons High School, Raleigh
The Lewis Award
Each year three award finalists are named in January based on written nominations. A single recipient is chosen after classroom visits and interviews, which often take place in February. Recipients of the Excellence in Teaching Award are celebrated in the spring at an all-school Mass at their school, and they receive a plaque and a monetary gift. To date, the Excellence in Teaching Award has honored 24 educators, and the Lifetime Achievement Award has been presented six times. To learn more about the Lewis Award, visit lewisaward.org.