As we remember Congressman John Lewis and his incredible life devoted to social justice and equality, Mary Kate Vick Fuller ’88 remembers the civil rights icon as her first boss and the unforgettable lessons he taught her.
I worked for Mr. Lewis for my first job out of Hollins in Washington, D.C. I had completed a short-term internship with Sen. Sam Nunn in January 1988. After graduation in May 1988, there was an opening in John Lewis’ office. I knew I wanted to work on Capitol Hill and didn’t care if it was for a Republican or Democrat. I just wanted to stay with Georgia representation, since I was born and raised in Rome.
Mr. Lewis was a great boss and always took the time to teach me about the Civil Rights Movement and how he led the Selma march with Martin Luther King. He was very humble and quiet, but when the words flowed, it was amazing. He considered himself a minister and talked to me about how we were all in “one house,” as he called it, under God. He was passionate about teaching young people the history of [race in] our country and how he wanted to make changes so our children’s children would live in a great country.
He had a wall of photos in his office and loved telling me about his 40-plus arrests. He would point to each photo and tell the story. The one I really remember is of him getting beaten and pushed into a car. I can still see the photo. What courage he had. It was just incredible.
I was in charge of all the tours, opening mail, and dispersing it to legislation [department for the office]. He hated it when constituents came to his office and wanted to tour the Capitol, but the tours were already booked. I asked him if I could memorize the guided tour and give tours myself. He agreed, and we never had to turn people away. I had really turned my receptionist’s job into something more, and he appreciated it.
When there were dinners in D.C. and he was in Atlanta, he often chose me to represent him. He said, “I like how you shake hands and look people in the eye.” I loved representing him to constituents.
I read an article about him the other week where he talked about looking people in the eye when you shook their hand. I remembered having a conversation about that with Mr. Lewis. He listened intently to people and talked about how important it was to hear what people have to say. My dad always said that you treat the president of the company and the janitor the same, and that was the kind of man Mr. Lewis was.
I was also in charge of answering the phones for the office. When the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 was being voted on – [the law prohibits manufacturing, importing, selling, etc. firearms undetectable to metal detectors] – the phones were ringing off the hook. That same day, Barbara Bush had invited all the secretaries on the House of Representatives’ side to the White House for tea and cookies and to see her dog Millie’s puppies.
When Mr. Lewis came from the floor from voting, he asked me why I wasn’t at the White House meeting Barbara Bush. I said the office was too busy to leave and that I had stayed to answer all the calls. He replied, “Mary Kate, this is a chance of a lifetime, and I don’t want you to miss it. Forward your phone to my office, and I will personally answer your calls myself while you are gone. I hugged him and ran out the door to the White House. He was right. It was the chance of a lifetime.
At that time, I knew Mr. Lewis was important and had shaped our country, but I really didn’t know how big his role was until later. When I was an elementary school teacher in Rome years later, I taught my students about him.
Rest in peace, Mr. Lewis, and thank you for all you taught me.
Mary Kate Vick Fuller ’88 lives in Rome, Ga.