When students at Alabama’s Crestline Elementary School see their beloved head custodian, Jerome Lewis, cleaning a classroom or strolling a hallway,”it’s like a celebrity sighting,” says a teacher at the school. “They have to stop, they have to give him a hug.”
This wisp of a man who exudes a quiet joy knows every student’s name, and always has the time to ask how he or she is doing. And there’s always a high-five with that hug. “A breath of fresh air, even when the day stinks,” says one student of the always-smiling 65-year-old.
This past summer, Lewis visited Crestline on Saturday – his day off – as he usually does, just to check on things. Peering outside at threatening skies, he saw one of the fourth graders walking his dog just as a downpour began.
“He got him an umbrella and walked the little boy entirely home so he wouldn’t get wet,” Laurie King, Crestline’s principal, tells PEOPLE.
“I’m not a very religious person, but he’s an angel.”
An angel who is terminally ill.
In February of 2013, Lewis was diagnosed with malignant appendiceal cancer, which has continued to spread throughout his abdominal cavity and for which there is no cure, one of his doctors, Philip Fischer, M.D., tells PEOPLE.
Yet that dire diagnosis has never kept Lewis away from his beloved school for long – even after surgery at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
This past Monday, however, Lewis was home recovering from a several-day stay at the hospital triggered by “intense pain,” he tells PEOPLE. That day, during a school assembly devoted to Lewis, it was announced he’d won Janitor of the Year, a national competition run by Cintas Corporation and involving some 200 janitors nationwide.
“I can’t even describe the impact of this man on our school but our entire community,” King tells PEOPLE.
Lewis is known for shying away from any talk about himself, but he tells PEOPLE that winning the award, which comes with a $5,000 cash prize for him and $5,000 for Crestline Elementary, “felt great, it felt like I am not only representing myself but all custodians throughout this great nation.”
Yet there aren’t many custodians like Lewis.
One night In 1981, Lewis was working at a steel plant when someone opened the door of a furnace; Lewis was standing 30 feet away.
“I could feel the intense heat and I heard a voice speaking to me, and it said, ‘Hell is hotter,’ ” Lewis recalls. From that moment, he became a deeply devout Christian.
“God saved me, he put a new heart in me,” Lewis says. “He changed me all around. It’s God doing it.”
Once Lewis retired from the steel plant after working there for 27 years, he took up custodial work, and has been at Crestline spreading goodwill – and keeping the place sparkling clean – for nine years. Lewis arrives at work by 6:30 a.m., drinks coffee and is visited by students and teachers before punching in at 8.
“If I am having a bad day he turns my whole day around,” says sixth grader Lillie Wright, 12.
And the kids, as well as their parents and other community members, support and embrace Lewis.
Following his cancer diagnosis in 2013, lemonade stands and fundraisers raised some $20,000 to fly Lewis and his family to MD Anderson for an operation to remove as much of the cancer as possible. While hospitalized, the Crestline students buoyed his spirits with hundreds of letters.
“They inspire me, they encourage me, they show so much love to me,” Lewis says. “They motivate me to continue on.”
One recent Thanksgiving, Lewis and his wife of 34 years, June, and their 14-year-old son spent the day with at a local hospital, visiting a junior high school student fighting cancer who had gone through Crestline, and the child’s family.
“Me and my wife, we wanted to do that,” Lewis says. “They were going through their hurting times. When you hurt, I hurt. When you rejoice, I rejoice. We felt it was something good for us to do that day.”
The two families held hands and prayed together. Lynn Ortis, the mom of the student, has said of Lewis: “He really is the closest to Jesus on this earth I think that I’ve ever met.”