Earl Lewis, Trinity’s first tenured black professor, helped Urban Studies students break new ground
by Jeremy Gerlach
Greg Bolds ’78 was a promising political science major at Grambling State University in the 1970s when he heard his college professor recommend a master’s program at a small Texas school.
“I heard that Dr. Earl Lewis had started an urban studies program at Trinity University,” Bolds says. “My plan had initially been to go to law school, but my professor told me, ‘You need to take a look at this Trinity program.’”
So Bolds, like so many of Lewis’ other students, took a chance on urban studies at Trinity. They arrived to find a hidden gem of a program, carefully cultivated by the pioneering professor.
Lewis, Trinity's first tenured African-American professor, had originally joined the University in 1968. He was called upon to direct a two-year graduate program in Urban Studies, partially endowed by the George W. Brackenridge Foundation. Already a highly-esteemed educator and public service devotee, Lewis initiated the program in the fall of 1969, relentlessly recruiting a diverse student population that included significant numbers of Black and Hispanic students.
Lewis’ impact was nothing short of transformative. Over the course of his 22-year tenure, he and his colleagues trained and mentored more than 250 men and women to work in the public and private sectors, opening the way for them to contribute to the governance of this region, and far beyond.
At Trinity, Lewis led students like Bolds through a challenging, well-rounded curriculum. Unlike many other graduate programs at the time, Urban Studies candidates also took courses taught by instructors in the Departments of Sociology, Economics, Psychology, Political Science, Health Care Administration, and Journalism, in addition to required, specific urban studies courses.
Lewis also understood the importance of building ties between his students and the San Antonio community that many of them would go on to serve. So, his students were also required to serve a nine-to-12-month apprenticeship in a private or public community agency while enrolled in the Urban Studies program.
This was a heavy workload for many master’s candidates, but Bolds says Lewis went above and beyond to ensure all his students were up-to-speed.
“Dr. Lewis wasn’t just an intellectual. He was really passionate about the Urban Studies program, and he cared a lot about the students,” Bolds says. “Now, he was demanding, but he also made sure we were taken care of —he made sure we did what it took to make it through the program.”
Bolds says Lewis helped him develop his graduate paper, right down to working with him on minor details to make sure the master’s candidate “crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’.” Lewis also went out of his way to organize extra study sessions for any student who needed more time to catch up. Bolds, who would stay after class to study for exams with Lewis in the afternoons, recalled missing one single study opportunity. The next day, Lewis called his student into the office for a “real good” discussion on the importance of hard work.
Bolds won’t go into details about that conversation, but chuckles, “He convinced me that those were the opportunities I shouldn’t be missing.”
Taking this lesson to heart, Bolds would go on to capitalize on a wide range of career opportunities in the future.
After interning with San Antonio’s city manager out of college, Bolds got his first job in the City’s planning department, specializing in data planning. He also worked on the City’s efforts to support the 1980 census, ensuring San Antonio was accurately represented. Bolds was one of the first professionals in the city to begin working with a geo-processing system—early precursors to the geographic information systems (GIS) used by urban planners today.
After stints in workforce development—developing initiatives such as Project Quest—Bolds would go onto major projects such as the Alamodome development, and he currently works in city planning for Austin, Texas. He also is a member of an investment club that includes two other Trinity classmates from the Urban Studies program.
“I went into Urban Studies because I’ve always been interested in creating something that benefits the community,” Bolds says. “And city planning, you’ve got to bring a lot of people together to get things done.”
Bold’s success mirrors countless other Urban Studies graduates under Lewis’ watch. Graduates of the Urban Studies program routinely became city planners and city managers in major metropolitan areas across the country, or attained other professional positions in state and federal government agencies and private economic development corporations.
Among his many students who have significantly impacted their communities are Trinity Trustee Walter Huntley Jr. ’71 ’73, a powerful influencer on Atlanta's urban development, and former San Antonio city manager Alex Briseño ’71 ’73.
The legacy of Trinity’s Urban Studies department continues to resonate to this day, as graduates such as new San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh ’91, ’94 continue to reach positions of great impact. Trinity’s program has shifted to a bachelor’s degree, but undergraduates still play a unique, key role in the work of professors such as Christine Drennon, who’s contributed invaluable research that has introduced powerful calls for equity and fairness into the city’s budgeting process.
And for all the accolades, career achievements, and real-world impact each Urban Studies graduate has had, every one of Lewis’ alumni can trace their success back to his influence.
“Dr. Lewis and Trinity, they taught us to plan, to analyze, to show the benefits of development using data,” Bolds says. “And those were skills I’ve been able to use my entire life.”
Earl Lewis passed away in 2012 at the age of 92, and is survived by his wife, Hazelyn, two sons, a daughter, and a granddaughter. In the years since, students, alumni, and faculty have continued to share their memories of his legacy.