Remembering “Grandma” Inez Sewell

June 21, 1928 – August 9, 2021

Born in Havana Cuba, Inez was the third of five children.  At the age of five, Inez’s family moved to Kingston, Jamaica, and then to the Parish of Saint James. Her mother was a seamstress and dressmaker, and her father was a farmer and a butcher. Inez loved school! She had to walk 5 ½ miles to and from school each morning and evening.  She attended a one room schoolhouse – Pear Tree Hill School at 6 years old, which was divided into seven sections to accommodate students from kindergarten to sixth standard. When Inez was in elementary school, she lived vicariously through her least favorite classes, history, and geography. The country that captivated her imagination was America, and the state was New York. She wasn’t good with remembering historical dates – but focused on the beauty, luxury and opportunity America had to offer to anyone who was willing to work hard and enjoy life. 

At 15 years old, she moved back to Kingston with her family. She was sad to leave her life in Saint James behind. She was a tom-boy – she loved to climb trees, roam around the countryside, and had lots of friends and her own baseball team. Sadly, she had to quit school because there were no government high schools, and her mother could not afford the cost of a private high school.  Her mom was so sad, but Inez told her “Don’t worry – I will get my education one day.” 

On January 24, 1958, she left Kingston to come to America with $1,000 – her life savings. Her first job was at Mary Immaculate Hospital working in the dining room serving the medical staff.  It was not the job she wanted – but she figured that by getting her foot in the door, it would allow her the opportunity to move into what she really wanted to do which was work with the sick. One day, she went to work and approached the Sister (nun) in charge of her department and asked her if she could be transferred to a department where she could work with the sick.  Luckily a position was just opened on the Pediatric Floor, she interviewed, and was hired on the spot. Inez loved all children, and it broke her heart seeing that children got so sick and even died. She worked on the Pediatric Floor from 1958-1963. 

On June 11, 1963, she became an American citizen. She was the first of her family to emigrate to America. She attended evening High School in Jamaica, Queens. She was married in 1963 and had Anthony, her son in 1964. After her son’s birth, she became a stay-at-home mom. She cleaned houses for four years to pay for her son’s nursery school tuition. When her daughter Alicia was born in 1970, she decided to start a nursery school at her home for working mothers in the neighborhood.  She started with four children from 6:00am – 9:00pm.  Her business expanded and thrived for four years until Alicia started nursery school, at which time she decided to close it.   

Eleven years had passed between attending evening High School in Queens and being able to attend classes to get her GED, which she earned in a year. She started at Bronx Community College (BCC). For Work-Study, she applied to the Chemistry Department. The scrub work would be her job but she took it anyway. She loved and excelled in science and math and majored in Industrial Chemistry. After learning the names of all the glassware, she began supervising the other Work-Study students in preparing the drawers for the incoming Chemistry students, and after taking enough Chemistry classes, she was also hired as an Adjunct College Laboratory Technician (CLT). She graduated from BCC with an Associate Degree in Applied Science in January 1981. 


From there, she attended City University of New York. Again, she was hired for Work-Study in the Chemistry Department. At the same time, she continued to work at BCC as a CLT, which enabled her to pay for our school tuition. At CUNY, she became a full time CLT. She received her Bachelor of Science in Chemistry in February 1990. Absolutely obsessed with learning and education, she then attended Herbert H. Lehman College and received a Bachelor of Science in Accounting in June 1995, and a Bachelor of Science in Computing and Management in June 1998. 

I still remember her interviewing for the job at Hunter, and when she was hired. She was elated. After all the struggles – finally she was stepping into a great job with security working with kids. She was hired at Hunter College High School in 1990 as a CLT.

Hunter was my mom’s life and her heart. She loved being around students and sharing her love of chemistry with everyone. She loved all the students and was affectionately known as “Grandma”. She believed all children were worthy of love and respect and believed wholeheartedly that all children could learn. Sometimes they just needed to be held accountable and know that someone cared. My mom told me many stories of her having kids who were having difficult times academically at Hunter – making them sit in her office and do their homework. She wanted every child to succeed. Working with my mom for school service was hard work – but if she picked you, and you were up for doing what she asked – you would learn a lot.

Inez was devoted to her work.  She was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about chemistry and lab work, skillful, precise, by the book, always extremely well prepared, organized, and very concerned with the safety of students and colleagues. For 24 years, she was responsible for ordering all the lab materials reagents and the maintenance of supplies and equipment for use in Physical Science, Chemistry and AP Chemistry Department, and the disposal of all solids and solutions in a safe manner either by discarding them or recycling them with other parts of the University. She was instrumental in reducing departmental expenditures on chemicals, materials, and waste by preventing contamination and reducing waste by students by creating creative color-coded systems and working directly with teachers to revise lab procedures. At times when Hunter did not have a Biology Lab Technician, she set up all the Biology labs as well. She created an inventory system to keep track of Hunter’s Chemical inventory and provided documentation for all labs she prepared for Physical Science, Chemistry & AP Chemistry.  She was unusually resourceful in acquiring materials from other parts of the University that were no longer being used for use in the department. She provided guidance for colleagues who taught courses they had not taught in several years. She also made repairs to major pieces of equipment to keep them in service within the department.

Department Head Marge Goldsmith described my mom’s commitment and devotion to her job at Hunter in one of many glowing Annual Evaluations best: “Inez earned the confidence and respect of colleagues in her preparations by testing all setups and reagents before they were brought into the classroom. She has high expectations for herself, the teachers, and their students. These characteristics can only benefit the department. She anticipates what is needed and prepares well in advance. She is demanding in terms of cleanliness and quality control and expects the teachers in each course to be responsible as well. This is important; for it helps to develop a sense of responsibility for each lab section and helps to promote safety and preservation of our lab supplies. Inez has a wonderful rapport with students. She talks to them in the hallway and cajoles them into keeping up with their work. Their nickname for her, “Granny,” is meant as a term of endearment. She is delighted when Seniors come up to her and thank her for her concern and encouragement over the years. Her willingness to walk the halls and talk to kids is a boost for our department, as is her participation in many labs: helping the teacher and the students. Inez does not need to participate in the labs unless she chooses to do so. Her availability in the prep room or in 344 is always an asset in terms of safety and support.  Inez’s knowledge, experience, attention to detail and willingness to try out new demos has added markedly to our Chemistry program.  Her attention to the students on a personal level has given them a school based ‘Granny.’  Thank you!”

Inez retired in 2014 at the age of 83, and moved to Atlanta, Georgia to be closer to her granddaughter Layla. My mom died shortly after celebrating her 93rd birthday in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Alicia Felder

Ms. Felder plans to have a memorial service for her mother on Zoom. If you would like to learn more about her plans for a memorial for Mrs. Sewell, please email info@hchsaa.org.

Mrs. Sewell’s former colleagues have shared some memories:

“Inez had a keen sense of organization and keeping things in order. She was always available to help things run smoothly.”

-Dr. Judith Klein, Science Chair (retired)

“Inez could be demanding and protective of the equipment and her prep space. Her goal was to make sure that the lab prep provided the precise needs for the teachers and the exacting lab experience for the students.

She nurtured many students by walking the halls to greet them and check on homework. In private- she had quite a humorous streak. Generations of physical science students benefitted from her expertise and care. “

Marge LANDSBERG Goldsmith ’61, Science Chair (retired)

“Mrs. Sewell was a quintessential Laboratory Technician. Her preparation work was always perfect. The cart of reagents and equipment she brought to the lab each time was exactly what we needed. She didn’t make mistakes. She would stay in the lab to provide both an extra pair of hands and her own vast expertise for the class.  Mrs. Sewell LOVED working with the students and they loved her in return (they affectionately called her Granny).

Beyond the classroom, Mrs. Sewell would serve as Mentor for students that she felt needed help. She would check their homework each day and they appreciated her care and attention.

Outside the classroom, Inez Sewell and I became close friends. She kept most of her colleagues at a distance but I was lucky enough to break through. She was fiercely loyal to those she held close and I treasured her friendship.”

Fran Salzman, Chemistry and AP Chemistry Faculty (retired)