Tacoma educator Willie Stewart worthy recipient of Peace Prize

Tacoma Peace Laureate Willie Stewart is honored in Ballard’s annual Syttende Mai Parade. May, 17, 2019
Tacoma Peace Laureate Willie Stewart is honored in Ballard’s annual Syttende Mai Parade. May, 17, 2019 Robert Radford

“Speechless” is the word Willie Stewart used to describe how he felt when he learned he was this year’s recipient of the Greater Tacoma Peace Prize. Elation came later. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Maybe he couldn’t, but we can. When it comes to promoting peace, the first African American principal in Tacoma history did what all great leaders do: led by example.

Stewart, 83, who’s also a retired Army Reserve colonel, spent 36 years working in Tacoma schools as a teacher and administrator and many more after that working with agencies and nonprofits to improve education in the region.

The number of boards he’s served on is too large to add up. Suffice it to say if the organization contains the words, “boys,” “girls,” “students,” “learning” or “graduation,” Stewart is probably there serving or advising.

His decades of service haven’t gone unnoticed, which is why a local public school academy, scholarships and buildings have been named after him. His legacy even includes a high school wrestling tournament.

Stewart was principal of Lincoln High School from 1970 to 1978 – a time when the social landscape of America was changing fast. The many black teachers he recruited to Tacoma represented a wave of diversity that changed us for the better.

When he walked the halls of the Eastside high school, first as assistant principal and then as principal, young men were being shipped off to fight in Vietnam; thousands more were coming home in body bags.

Racial tensions were high across the country. Civil rights advancements were slow and often met with retaliation. A dearth of housing, education and career opportunities resulted in extreme economic inequities for people of color.

Despite the chaos that reigned outside Lincoln High, Stewart recalls:“The students had a great respect for one another.”

No doubt the daily interactions with their principal helped serve as a template.

Stewart says one of the biggest controversies during his tenure was “whether the girls could wear pants,” but he didn’t want to make dress code an issue. “Those things were secondary to a good education.”

Eventually, the girls got to wear pants. Even better, they got to play sports. Stewart credits Title IX for bringing the most positive changes to Tacoma public schools. The 1972 federal statute prohibits sex discrimination in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.

Stewart says equality belongs in the classroom, on the athletic field, in shop class and home economics. He credits the military for exposing him to “a multicultural world.”

Tacoma’s peace prize, modeled after the Nobel Prize for Peace, has been awarded to peacemakers from the Tacoma/ Pierce County region since 2005 when the Sons and Daughters of Norway teamed up with Pacific Lutheran University.

The award speaks volumes about what our community values. Every year the GTPP board works on ways to promote peace through research and skills training.

But the most visible contribution is honoring “champions of peace,” as Swedish inventor and tycoon Alfred Nobel once called them.

Ours is one of a few cities in the U.S. that gives out the prize and the only one that sends its annual winner to Norway for the award ceremony.

Stewart, the son of a Texas sharecropper and the 10th of 11th children, has never forgotten his roots. He says he looks forward to being an outspoken ambassador for Tacoma. “I’ll tell them we are a welcoming community with a big heart.”

That’s classic Willie Stewart, and a message he’s personified for decades.