You have to run fast, and think fast, to keep up with 79-year-old Willie Stewart.
Whether he’s campaigning for a Tacoma school levy, connecting with students at Lincoln High School or sifting through Tacoma School District finances as part of a budget advisory committee, Stewart applies the same ethic he learned from his Texas sharecropper father.
Work hard. Then work some more.
It’s a role he perfected during 36 years in Tacoma schools as a teacher, principal and district administrator, and as a Tacoma School Board member from 1999 to 2005. He has stayed active in a long list of organizations that support local youth and education, as well as other civic causes.
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On Thursday night, the Tacoma School Board voted to honor Stewart by naming a building for him.
“What this award really means tonight, and this recognition, is that I have work to do,” Stewart said. “It’s not the past, it’s tomorrow. This gives me the urge to do more.”
The modest brick building that will carry his name is at 1818 Tacoma Ave., on the edge of downtown. For years, it was known simply as “1818.” It once held a program for youth on parole, then was a classroom and administrative center for the Tacoma School of the Arts.
Most recently, the building has been the site of the district’s Re-Engagement Center, a program for students who have dropped out of high school, lack credits to graduate on time or have family or job needs that preclude them attending a traditional high school.
Now it will be called Willie Stewart Academy. For a transition period during the 2015-16 school year, it will be known as Willie Stewart Academy — A Re-Engagement Center. (The academy name is intended to distinguish the building from Stewart Middle School on Pacific Avenue; it is named for James P. Stewart, Tacoma’s first teacher from 1869-1870.)
Willie Stewart became a pioneer in 1970 when he was named to lead Lincoln, and he became the Tacoma School District’s first black principal. Stewart speaks humbly about that milestone.
“The school district was very accommodating,” he remembered. “I had such a great support system.”
While principal at Lincoln, district officials dispatched him on trips to predominantly black colleges in the South to recruit teachers for Tacoma.
In years past, he said, that was where you went to find black educators ready to launch their careers. He observes that times have changed, and many of those students who might have chosen education as a career now have other options in law, medicine and high-tech industries.
“The teaching profession is not as sacred as it once was,” he said.
Stewart was born in the small Texas community of Columbus, nearly 70 miles from Houston. The 10th of 11 children, he picked cotton as a child, then worked washing dishes during his later high school years. He graduated, one of a class of 11, from segregated Columbus Colored High School in 1953.
Then, he says, “a miracle” happened that let him do something he never dared to dream about as a youth.
“Nobody from my family had ever gone to college, or barely knew what it was,” he said.
His sister and brother-in-law had moved to Houston, near the campus of the historically black college, Texas Southern University. They invited Stewart to move in with them, and offered to pay his tuition.
His relatives didn’t ask him to work, but he got a job bagging groceries anyway. They told him that they were willing to support him because they wanted to see a member of the Stewart family go to college.
He joined the Army, eventually retiring from the Reserve as a colonel. A posting to Fort Lewis brought him to Tacoma.
Stewart started his career as a Tacoma educator, first as a teacher and then as assistant principal at the now-closed Gault Middle School. From there, he moved to Lincoln as assistant principal, then was named principal and served eight years.
Always proud of his Texas roots, Stewart would sometimes follow up morning announcements by broadcasting a recording of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” over the Lincoln P.A. system. And he was always known around the district for his cowboy boots.
Fellow Texan and former Tacoma City Manager Jim Walton said that his friend Stewart “has a heart that’s as big as Texas. He understands what leadership is all about. He is one of the true local heroes.”
Stewart’s career took him from Lincoln to the downtown administration office, in the post of assistant superintendent for personnel. Dan Barkley, also an assistant superintendent at the time, worked closely with Stewart.
“I can’t think of anybody who has been more of a supporter for and advocate for the Tacoma School District than Willie,” Barkley said. “He was revered on the East Side. And during (contract) negotiations or during difficult budget circumstances, he was always the one to to step up and say, ‘We can do this.’ ”
Stewart is renowned for his ability to remember everyone he meets — teachers he once hired, as well as the children of those teachers.
“You can run into people in the community, and he remembers when they ran the 100-yard dash in 1982 — and what their time was,” said former Superintendent Jim Shoemake.
These days, both men are board members of the Foundation for Tacoma Students, one of Stewart’s many volunteer positions in the city.
A survivor of prostate cancer, Stewart runs a support group for prostate cancer patients and is active with American Cancer Society fundraiser Relay for Life. He is a mainstay at Sunday morning community breakfasts at downtown’s Urban Grace Church. And he serves with the Tacoma Athletic Commission, the Boys & Girls Club, Palmer Scholars and many other organizations.
He is proud to say his children followed him into education. Daughter Collette Stewart is principal at Puyallup’s Spinning Elementary, and son Willie Stewart Jr. is assistant principal at Puyallup High School. His wife, Faye, is also a retired teacher, who finished her career at Whittier Elementary School.
Debbie Winskill, a current board member who worked with Stewart when he was on the board, said Stewart “has given his professional career to the schools.”
“We are naming this building after you,” Winskill said Thursday. “But we really need to name a skyscraper after you.”
“You’re not done yet,” added board member Karen Vialle. “We still need you.”
What keeps Stewart motivated?
“I am so grateful for so many good things that have happened in my life,” Stewart said. “I feel obligated to serve. If I have energy, if I have talent, if I have money, I want to share it.”