Longtime education advocate and church supporter recognized by Rotary Club

Jill Lewis

Jill Lewis was announced as the winner of the South St. Paul/Inver Grove Heights Rotary Club’s 2019 Service to Others Humanitarian Recognition Award. 

The Rotary motto is “service above self,” and the award is meant to spotlight an individual who embodies that philosophy. A selection committee, which includes Rotary members, as well as community representatives, assessed the nominees for 2019, and chose Lewis.

Lewis, 72, lives and operates her own business in Inver Grove Heights and was nominated by longtime friend Paul Hassing. Hassing has known her for over 20 years, ever since he moved to Inver Grove Heights to open his own office. 

“I knew someday that I was going to nominate her for this,” Hassing says. 

Throughout the two decades that he’s known Lewis, Hassing says he’s noticed her hard work and commitment to the community, much of which is through her work as director of the B.E.S.T. Foundation.

Founded in 1985, the foundation works to offer scholarships to Simley High School graduates. Instead of focusing on the top 10 in the class, however, the B.E.S.T. Foundation focuses in helping kids who aren’t at the top, or the bottom.

“We want to provide encouragement to students who are in the middle of the class, who are wondering whether or not they could be successful in college,” Lewis explains. “We want to give them a little leg up, to say that we believe in them.”

This past year alone, the B.E.S.T. Foundation awarded 119 scholarships, totaling about $170,000.

“Jill has put so much time and effort into the foundation over the past 30-plus years that most people would have considered it a part-time job,” says Hassing.


School, church service

Along with The B.E.S.T. Foundation, Lewis has been a longtime school board member. 

She was on the Inver Grove Heights School Board from 1980 until 1995. Afterwards, she moved to the Intermediate School District 917 board, which includes all of Dakota County, plus Bloomington. 

Lewis works with vocational programs, as well as special education programs, for deaf, hard-of-hearing and autistic children. 

“In my opinion, Jill’s biggest passion is for the kids and students,” Hassing says. “She has done so much with both the B.E.S.T. Foundation and for the school boards, to give the best environment and the greatest likelihood of success — I think that’s her biggest passion and contribution.”

Lewis is also the musical leader for church services at Mt. Bethel Methodist Church. She started playing the organ for Salem Methodist Church — it’s since changed names to Crossroads — in seventh grade. Sixty years later, she’s still very active in the music program for both churches. At Mt. Bethel she plays piano and organ during Sunday services.

Asked why she has continued to stay with the program for so long, Lewis notes her family’s past with the church.

“I’m a fourth-generation organist,” she says. “My great-grandmother, grandmother and mother all played for the church. I inherited the job.”

Mt. Bethel isn’t the only church with which Lewis’s family is closely associated. Old Salem Shrine, a small church in Inver Grove Heights, is the first evangelical church in Minnesota, founded by German immigrant families in 1857. 

Some of those German immigrants included Lewis’s ancestors. When the church discontinued services in 1910, it began to fall into disrepair. Lewis’s grandfather wouldn’t allow that to happen, and pulled together a committee in the 1930s to maintain the church. 

“My grandfather worked on the shrine until he passed away when he was 98,” Lewis says. “Then my father took care of it, then my brothers, and now it falls on me. It’s a part of my heritage.”

Today, the shrine holds two services a year, the first Sunday in January and the first Sunday in June, the latter meant to be an open house ceremony for the community. 


Stepping away

Lewis has previously worked as treasurer for the Rotary Club, as well as helping with the club’s newsletters, emails and other projects. 

Since recently being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she’s stepped away from her responsibilities with the Rotary Club. She’s also working with the school board to find others to take on her work with the B.E.S.T. Foundation.

“Jill is a perfect example of service above self,” Hassing says. “She’s not out there seeking the most prominent role or the fanciest title. But, when you look at who’s doing the work late into the evening year after year, it’s Jill.”

Lewis says her motivation and strong work ethic comes from how she was raised. 

“I grew up in a house where if you weren’t working or at school, then you’d better be at church working or doing something for other people,” she says. “Doing good works — that’s how we were brought up and I hope I lived my life that way.”

Lewis will be recognized at the Rotary Club’s Humanitarian Recognition Banquet held at Southview Country Club on Friday, April 26.


–Marissa Wandzel can be reached at roseville@lillienews.com

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