By Marnie McAllister, Record Assistant Editor
If you watch “Mass of the Air” or even catch it occasionally on WHAS television on Sunday mornings, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Norma Lewis. Her image appears in the corner of your screen, her hands gesturing in swift graceful motions as Mass is celebrated on the big screen.
The 91-year-old Lewis has been interpreting for hearing impaired Mass viewers since the local program began airing 37 years ago.
Last week, she was honored for her service to the hearing impaired by Louisville Metro Mayor Greg Fischer.
He surprised her with a plaque on March 12 at the Ursuline Motherhouse Chapel, during the taping of a Mass set to air on the last Sunday of Lent.
“The city is so proud of Ms. Lewis,” said the mayor as he presented the award. “She has been such a hero for so many years.”
The citation reads, in part, “Norma Lewis has helped the spoken word come alive for countless individuals. … A grateful community honors her service which was always offered with a huge smile and an optimistic attitude.”
The pronouncement notes her decades of service interpreting for people in the court system, for Catholic worshippers, patients, students and voters.
“You need to let them keep their dignity so they can participate in the world with equal access to communication,” Lewis says, very pointedly, when asked about her service to people with hearing impairments.
She has also met some interesting people. She interpreted for President Bill Clinton when he visited Louisville; she accompanied Robert Kennedy to Appalachia; she interpreted for Ross Perot when he was campaigning and she has interpreted for Romano Mazzoli — who, by the way, she says is one of her heroes.
Despite her age, Lewis drives and continues to work full time. She’s the type of person who smiles as a habit and means it. She also cracks jokes and does impressions at every chance.
That’s part of her outlook on life, she said: “I have to laugh so I don’t cry. I’ve always said that and I will until the day I die.”
Her life wasn’t easy, she explained during an interview at her home March 14, but her sense of service, of wanting to help other people, surfaced early on.
Her work with the deaf community began when she was a child, interpreting for her aunt and uncle, who raised her in Connecticut. The couple were deaf, and young Norma — who was somewhere in the range of 9- to 11-years-old when she went to live with them — began to learn their language. She accompanied them to all sorts of appointments, she said, and interpreted the priest’s homilies for them after Mass.
At age 19, she responded like other young people of her generation to a nation in need. She set aside her language skills and joined the United States Navy during World War II. She worked in intelligence — tracking submarines from a base in Charleston, S.C.
Lewis wouldn’t use her language skills professionally until much later — when she moved to Louisville in the 1960s.
She began by interpreting for deaf and hearing impaired students who previously had limited access to higher education. She earned $4 an hour, she said.
In the intervening years, Lewis noted, legislation drastically improved services and access for deaf and hearing impaired people. And she’s thankful that she’s been there to help.
Lewis said she sees her skill as a gift.
“My life has taken a wonderful turn that I could do so much for so many,” she said. “That’s a gift. I will share this gift ‘til I drop dead.”
She is particularly happy that she could volunteer for Mass of the Air — which reaches a large audience in Central and Southern Kentucky and Southern Indiana.
“I’m so happy that I can do this,” she said. “I never thought something like this would happen for the deaf.”
Father Nick Rice, executive director of Mass of the Air, said the gift she shares with viewers is invaluable.
“She is a woman of deep joy and faith and absolute commitment to serving the deaf community,” he said. “She has experienced great challenge in her own life and has faced it all with great joy and the enthusiasm of a teenager.
“She has what we call body transcendence,” he added. “Her spirit is stronger than her body. If her body is giving her aches and pains, her spirit transcends that.”
Lewis, a member of St. Stephen Martyr Church, said she intends to keep interpreting for as long as her body will let her.