Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Ola M. Lewis died Sunday from a rare form of liver cancer. Lewis, who was the state’s youngest jurist when first appointed in 1993, was 54 years old.
The judge died at home in Bolivia and was with her family, state Sen. Bill Rabon said in a prepared statement. Rabon was Lewis’ godfather.
Lewis had a reputation as a firm but fair judge with compassion. She was instrumental in establishing Brunswick County’s drug and alcohol treatment courts and the county’s Opioid Task Force. At the time of her passing, Lewis was the longest-serving woman on the bench in North Carolina.
She was also the youngest judge for the State of North Carolina, at 27, when she was first elected.
Lewis earned her undergraduate degree from Fayetteville State University and her law degree from N.C. Central University. Admitted to the bar in 1990, she clerked for Dan Blue’s law firm in Raleigh. Blue was the first African-American speaker of the state House.
Lewis was an assistant district attorney from 1991-1993 and was first appointed as a District Court judge in 1993.
Former governor Mike Easley recalled establishing the first treatment courts in 1993 while he served as state attorney general.
“Ola was full of enthusiasm and energy,” Easley said. “She used her personality and and legal skills to help others, especially in the drug treatment court, where she helped drug addicts become productive people. Ola knew there was good in all people and she saw it as her mission to let it flourish.
“Ola’s passing is a loss to the judiciary and to all of Brunswick County.”
Lewis served as senior resident superior court judge since 2003 for Judicial District 13A and 13B, covering Bladen, Brunswick and Columbus counties.
“Judge Lewis was a bold and dynamic individual both on and off the bench,” Rabon said in his statement. “She worked tirelessly and was an advocate for those suffering from addiction and mental health disorders. She was a trail blazer ... Her compassionate efforts and steadfast belief in rehabilitation have helped hundreds of individuals turn their lives around by offering them second chances through hard work and accountability. The specialty courts established by Judge Lewis have served as models across the state and nation.”
Gov. Roy Cooper awarded Lewis the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the highest honor given to a civilian resident, for her service to the state.
“Judge Lewis will be sorely missed by those who had the privilege of knowing her and by those she touched while serving on the bench,” Rabon’s statement read. “Her friends and colleagues will miss her warm smile. Judge Lewis was loved by thousands of people and respected by everyone.”
Lewis made an unsuccessful bid for state Supreme Court in 2014. In late 2017, she announced she was being treated for cancer at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. When she returned home, Lewis filed and was re-elected as senior resident Superior Court judge in Brunswick.
“I have lost one of my dearest friends,” said Jwantana Frink, former Southport city alderman, member of the Dosher Hospital board, and longtime trustee for Brunswick Community College. “Judge Ola inspired me, my husband Curtis, and so many others to be our best selves. She was courageous and compassionate until the very end. She fought the good fight and she is now resting in peace with our Lord and Savior.”
Raymond Wood, a Methodist minister and coordinator for Brunswick’s DWI and domestic violence courts, said he was amazed by Lewis’ leadership, knowledge and compassion.
Wood also said Lewis was a visionary who knew how to get things done.
“She inspired me to tap into God’s vision for me,” he said. “It’s a loss, but she lived every moment.”
And part of Lewis’ legacy lives on.
Wood said he was going to Robeson County this week to help set up a treatment court there, where people with addictions can get treatment instead of simply time in jail: the same vision Lewis grew here.
“Judge Lewis was a dear and trusted friend to both me and my wife Michelle,” Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram posted on Facebook. “We loved her like family and our lives were deeply enriched because of her presence. Her passion for the law and justice, along with her compassion and genuine heart for others has left a mark in the hearts of all she touched. We will miss her infectious smile and laughter, as well as that bold and dynamic personality for which she is well known.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends ... She was indeed one of a kind and will be missed.”
Lewis is survived by her husband, Reginald Holley; her mother, Doris Lewis; and her brother, Cliff Lewis. Funeral services had not been announced as of press time.