The Tablet Staff
Joe Lewinger, Assistant Principal of Student Life at The Mary Louis Academy in Queens, died late in the evening of March 28 from complications of the coronavirus. He was 42 years old.
Lewinger worked at the all-girls school for 20 years — first as a teacher, then as an athletic coach and director, and most recently as the Assistant Principal of Student Life.
“His love for Mary Louis was always in evidence, particularly when he referred to himself as a Woman of Dignity!” wrote Principal Ann O’Hagan-Cordes in a March 28 letter to students and parents.
“There will be a time in the future to celebrate all of Joe’s numerous accomplishments,” she added. “Now is the time to grieve and mourn our tremendous loss.”
Lewinger’s death is being felt by athletes, students and educators alike.
Colleen O’Brien, a 2012 graduate of the school, had Lewinger as her economics teacher. “He was really one of those teachers who made all his students feel special, and that really isn’t easy when you’re teaching hundreds of teenage girls,” she told The Tablet. “He cared so much about TMLA, our students, our athletics, our teachers … everything.”
During his long career at TMLA, he established the school’s athletic program. Their basketball team, which he coached until 2012, became one of the most respected in the Girl’s Catholic High School Athletic Association. The school won a Class D New York State Federation championship in 2002 and a Class A crown in 2007.
He also served on the Board of Education of the Franklin Square Union Free School District as its president and a board member. “Mr. Lewinger cared deeply about our district; he cared deeply about our community; he believed in our kids,” the district wrote in a March 29 letter to families and staff.
Lewinger dedicated himself tirelessly to his community in the classroom and on the court, even when facing obstacles of his own.
“Rise” is the one word that long-time friend and co-worker Jenny Limberg-Durkin associates with Joe Lewinger. When the 1998 TMLA graduate returned to her alma mater in 2005 to teach, the two of them clicked.
“You just rise above it, you beat it and you rise above it,” and that’s what Lewinger did in hard times, she told The Tablet.
Lewinger and his wife had already faced what seemed like a lifetime of hardship. In 2018, their twins, Madison and Jack, were diagnosed with cancerous tumors in their kidneys. Even while working to secure treatment for the then 2-year-olds, he still made sure to be there for his students.
“He was so always lighthearted and caring,” O’Brien said. “You’d almost never see him without a smile, even when he was fighting battles that most of us couldn’t even imagine going through.”
“He lived and breathed his family and that school,” Limberg-Durkin added. “The thought of going back there without him is one of the worst things I’ve ever thought of.”
Lewinger is the second faculty member at The Mary Louis Academy to succumb to the virus in the past week. Fellow basketball coach Dave Edwards passed on March 23 at the age of 48.
Faced with the respiratory disease, Lewinger had been in intensive care, intubated, and placed on a ventilator according to an update posted to TMLA’s Instagram account early March 28. Prior to contracting the virus, he was known to have been in good health.
Whip Pediatric Cancer — a non-profit organization raising awareness and funds for pediatric cancer with ties to the Lewinger family through Jack and Madison — is now raising money for the family via Facebook. The fundraiser has so far collected over $50,000 to help support Maura, their daughter Maeve, and the twins during this trying time.
The Franklin Square School District and The Mary Louis Academy are both offering grief counseling in the wake of Lewinger’s passing.
“We will gather together at some point, when our city can come out of isolation, to share our memories of Mr. Lewinger — J Lew — and there are many wonderful stories to share,” wrote O’Hagan-Cordes. “But for now, we pray for the strength to get through this. We pray for the entire Lewinger family and for our Mary Louis family.”