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April 15, 2010

Obituary: G. Alec Stewart

alecstewartThe University’s chief proponent of “life above the neck,” University Honors College Dean G. Alec Stewart was remembered this week in a memorial service that filled Heinz Chapel with a standing-room-only gathering of faculty, staff, students, family and friends.

Glenn Alexander Stewart, known by most as Doc or simply Alec, died April 7, 2010, at UPMC Montefiore of unexpected complications related to a longstanding illness. He was 69.

In remarks at the April 12 service, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg had high praise for Stewart. “No single individual did more to elevate our position as a provider of the highest quality program of undergraduate education as he did,” Nordenberg said, noting how Stewart’s belief that all students should have the opportunity to be the best they can be is reflected in the attainments of Honors College students who have earned the highest forms of recognition.

Under the guidance of the Honors College, Pitt students have won six Rhodes Scholarships, nine Marshall Scholarships, 42 Goldwater Scholarships, 11 Truman Scholarships and five Udall Scholarships, as well as Churchill and Gates Cambridge scholarships.

Stewart’s commitment to attainment also has spread far beyond the Honors College to become a defining characteristic of the broader culture of the University, Nordenberg said.

Stewart earned his bachelor’s degree in physics in 1962 from Amherst College. He earned master’s degrees in physics and nuclear engineering and a PhD in solid-state physics at the University of Washington.

Following a research fellowship at Caltech, Stewart came to Pitt as an assistant professor of physics in 1972 and in 1978 was named head of the University’s new honors program.

At the memorial, Provost James V. Maher commended Stewart for shepherding the expansion of the program into a degree-granting honors college through delicate negotiations at a time when the idea was not universally welcomed. He cited Stewart’s sense of humor and ability to bring out the folly in arguments against forming an Honors College “without ever being unkind to the people making them.”

When his efforts were realized in 1987, Stewart was named the Honors College’s first dean.

He also was instrumental in the establishment of the Brackenridge Undergraduate Fellowships, which offer summer stipends for students to pursue research of their choosing.

Honors College alumna and Board of Trustees member Mary Ellen Callahan characterized the fellowships as “research opportunities unimaginable at other universities,” with the range of projects limited only by a student’s own imagination. “Alec provided no boundaries,” she said, citing one of Stewart’s characteristically irreverent “Doc-isms”: “Education is not provided in suppository form.”

Stewart also played a key role in securing the donation of 4,700 acres of Wyoming land rich in dinosaur fossils, convincing rancher Allen Cook, as Callahan put it, “to give his land to a guy who loved the outdoors as much as he loved academe,” quipping that Stewart “increased the University’s real estate holdings 45 times with a single handshake.”

Cook donated the land to the Honors College in 2006 as a preserve for education, conservation and research in geology, archaeology and the life sciences.

“Alec was a visionary in everything he did. He saw beauty, opportunity and creativity all around him,” Callahan said.

The dean continued to teach regularly in the physics department, where he held the Bernice L. and Morton S. Lerner chair.

Stewart was known for his own love of books as well as his keen ability to suggest just the right book to others. Countless students were among the beneficiaries of his recommendations, often not merely receiving the suggestion  but a copy of the book as well.

Provost Maher recounted a visit by a representative of the University’s internal auditors about a decade ago. “They told me I had this dean who was wandering around giving away books that belong to the University,” he said. “We had an interesting discussion about University property.”

While the books, paid for by gift money, Maher said, seemed to be a valid use of the funds, “we kind of bargained some to put a little bit better face on it.” He suggested to the auditors that he thought he could convince Stewart to keep a log of those to whom he gave books — “with a twinkle, because I knew I was going to get a really entertaining discussion on the bureaucratic enemy,” Maher said with a laugh. “And I was really looking forward to it.”

Over the years, Maher said, he learned he could count on two things in any interaction with Stewart: “The one is that I’m going to really enjoy what Alec is going to say. And the other is that there is no way on earth I can predict what Alec is going to say.”

Stewart took on a sometimes-curmudgeonly persona in commenting on the human condition, Maher said with a smile, recalling exchanges with the dean when they crossed paths on their quest for coffee in the Cathedral of Learning. “Usually the discussion was about bureaucratic enemies and life above the neck.”

Stewart demonstrated his passion for that life in an easy-going, fun-loving manner that endeared him to students as he encouraged their pursuit of knowledge and attainment.

“Alec had a confidence in us that we could not see and at the same time pushed us in ways we could not conceive of ourselves,” Callahan said. “Alec found a part of you that you didn’t know was there.”

Despite the accolades and national scholarships students attained, “Alec didn’t focus on that. He cared more about us as students” and desired that they be intellectually curious individuals.

“And he did have the amazing skill to find just the right book to loan us,” Callahan said.

“He refused to take himself seriously,” she recalled, citing his ability to hold wide-ranging conversations — “He could transition from [physicist] Richard Feynman to Greek philosophy, all while swigging bad coffee and bumming cigarettes” —and his penchant for surprising his freshman physics classes with his Halloween costumes, perhaps showing up for class as a gorilla, a werewolf or pirate Jack Sparrow.

Callahan said several Honors College alumni have related that they regularly contemplate W.W.A.D. — What Would Alec Do?

“I’m not necessarily convinced that we would want to know the answer to that all the time,” she said. “It may have involved a tie caught in a bicycle tire while doing a physics experiment or biking through Oakland with a croissant in one hand and coffee in the other.”

Ed McCord, the Honors College’s director of programming and special projects, said Stewart “built experiences for learning everywhere serendipity gave him a chance,” from laboratories on campus, to field studies in Yellowstone National Park, to summer trips to China, Russia and Mongolia.

McCord emphasized the important role of Stewart’s high school sweetheart and wife of nearly 50 years, Carolyn, a high school math and computer science teacher. Together, they shared “a lifelong partnership in the education of a new generation,” he said.

In comments to the University Times after the memorial service, McCord recognized the Stewarts’ shared life devoted to enlightenment and teaching, stressing Carolyn’s contribution to Alec’s life. “She was a crucial part of what completed him and made him successful in who he was,” McCord said.

Stewart also is survived by daughter Kirsten Marie Stewart, son Colin Rutledge Stewart and three grandchildren.

While the chapel service was perhaps the most formal memorial for the dean, his earthy humor, penchant for pranks and love of “dangerous ideas” left students and colleagues with some memories better suited for a less solemn venue.

Many have shared their remembrances of the man who relished playing the role of “intellectual terrorist” online through the  “G. Alec Stewart  Irreverent Yet Memorial Facebook Page” and the “Rename the Pitt University Honors College in Honor of G. Alec Stewart” Facebook page. Hundreds of people have joined the Facebook groups or posted comments on the pages in the days following his death.

Memorial contributions to the University Honors College can be made via Institutional Advancement ( The family also suggests memorial gifts to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (

Honors College colleagues also shared their memories of the dean in conversations with the University Times.

Stewart was a proponent of the belief that if the University is working, everyone ought to be learning, said Nate Hilberg, the Honors College’s director of academic affairs. “He believed in and lived the values of a liberal education.”

Stewart viewed the Honors College as “the place for the intellectual hedonist,” and provided a center of gravity that drew students in on the premise that the intellectual life is fun — a mindset that has yielded high achievement, Hilberg said. “When students gravitate to that message, they’re the right kind of student. And they do amazing things.”

He remembers Stewart as “serious but not solemn; irreverent in his way, but in no way that would compromise what we are all about.”

Hilberg recalled that many of his conversations with the dean focused on “what an amazing place a university was and the near-sacred obligation to make the University a place where people had freedom to express opinions no matter how outrageous” — as long as they were prepared to back them up.

To that end, when Hilbert was teaching in the Honors College suite, Stewart on occasion would poke his head into the classroom, wait for him to finish his sentence, then let loose with a loud, “Bullshit!”

The tactic got attention, yet was backed by an educational intent: “It was his pithy way to get that point across,” Hilberg said.

Stewart often preferred to avoid “dean work” in favor of being with students, either in the classroom — as in a Monday-through-Friday physics class he had been teaching this term; conducting Honors College information sessions; helping students with homework, or merely hanging out and engaging them in conversation.

“He liked nobody deferring to him because he was the dean,” said Honors College staffer Chris Chirdon. “He really was as down to earth as he said he was.”

Nevertheless, Chirdon said, Stewart was keenly aware that large universities can be prone to losing their focus. He guarded against that by resting his decisions on the basic tenet: Is this in the interest of the student?

“He was gallantly defensive of students,” becoming infuriated if he felt a student was being taken advantage of or getting the bureaucratic runaround, Chirdon said. “He would leap to their cause.”

Stewart maintained an open-door policy, and demonstrated his regard for students by example.

“An enormous amount with him was left unsaid,” McCord recalled. “He radiated by his manner and style, his values.”

Chief among them was that students and student interactions came before everything — a concept that was not announced to the staff, but was evident by observation.

“Students who dropped in and wanted to spend time with him — he would rearrange everything around them,” McCord said. Whenever possible, Stewart would put whatever he was doing aside — sometimes for hours — be it to help with physics problems or advise a student on personal or academic issues.

“I never recall him interacting with frustration or moodiness,” nor did he hold grudges or think less of a student who didn’t perform well, McCord said.

In dealing with students who were doing poorly or considering dropping out of school, “He had a magical ability to discern who they were and what made them tick,” with a gift for knowing how to engage their interest and motivation.

“He would shrewdly come up with suggestions and offer them opportunities that lit them up like a light bulb,” McCord said, recalling one instance in which a student who wanted to quit school stayed and later went on to win a Fulbright Scholarship.

While Stewart expected students to do their best, he understood they might have bad days, McCord said. “They didn’t need to fear him; he always regarded them highly.”

The dean’s faith and confidence in students was strong — sometimes stronger than their own, Chirdon recalled, noting that Stewart “didn’t make bad investments in people” when it came to supporting their intellectual pursuits.

Whether that was by some sixth sense or the sheer motivating power of his faith in them remains a mystery, Chirdon said, citing one Honors College alumnus’s continued awe at the confidence Stewart demonstrated by funding his request to attend a writer’s conference in Utah — including the ticket, spending money and a car to use.

“I took it to heart — I couldn’t believe how much this guy believed in me,” the student recounted to Chirdon.

Stewart’s assistant of 11 years, Karen Billingsley, said among the qualities that stood out during the 11 years she worked with him was that he encouraged the staff to find a way to incorporate their interests into their job.

“He wanted everyone to love their job here, to find a way to do something they loved and incorporate it into their work,” she said. “He so much loved what he did; he wanted everyone to love their job as much as he did.”

She said he also was the quintessential example of the connectedness of people — often not even needing the proverbial 6 degrees of separation before finding a common bond with anyone he would meet — be it in the way of a common acquaintance, a place they had visited or a book they both had read. “He was always able to converse with anyone,” whether prospective students, parents or tourists who wandered into the Honors College for the view from the 36th floor’s windows.

Billingsley recalled the audit cited by the provost during Stewart’s memorial — and confirmed the auditor’s alarm at how many books were being bought and that they were being given away.

Among those books were the volumes bestowed upon students who came in for a Chancellor’s Scholar interview. The dean’s practice was to hand-pick a book for each one, inscribing it with a personal message related to the interview, she said, noting that many recipients have recounted to her over the years how meaningful they found his gesture.

Students weren’t the only recipients of Stewart’s book recommendations. Honors College staffer Mike Giazzoni recalled his job interview with Stewart. “He got up in the middle of the interview and walked out of the room.”

Giazzoni hadn’t botched the meeting, as he initially feared. “He was just going out to get a book for me.” Giazzoni recently used the book, a collection of essays on the “Two Cultures” — technology and the humanities — in his doctoral dissertation in the School of Education.

McCord said Stewart was supportive of colleagues’ intellectual pursuits, noting that several Honors College staff have earned PhDs while working there. “This just delighted him,” McCord said, adding that Stewart’s attitude was that everyone’s track of personal improvement served the Honors College.

Stewart “was a great academic role model for so many people,” said staffer Dave Hornyak, who noted that several faculty have intimated to him since Stewart’s death that they considered the dean their hero.

Stewart’s value of education, “and how much he valued education for everyone,” stands out in Hornyak’s mind.

When prospective employees were being considered, the dean’s question always was, “Do they read books?” Hornyak said. “That sums up his whole philosophy of what an honors college, a university should be about.”

Judy Zang, who joined the Honors College staff in 2008 as director of national scholarships, said as a newcomer to Pitt she enjoyed drawing on Stewart’s wealth of experience and insight.

Stewart’s emphasis on curiosity, attitude, imagination and creativity was impressed upon her. “He looked at the attitude: If people had the right attitude, everything is possible,” she said.

When she would come to him seeking an opinion — admittedly with an idea in her head about the answer she expected — she always came away surprised. “He never had in mind what I thought,” she said, adding that Stewart forced her to be more circumspect, to resist jumping to conclusions and to guard against being judgmental.

“He made me step back and look at the bigger picture,” she said, counting herself fortunate to have had Stewart as a mentor, if only for a short while. “I wish it hadn’t ended. At least I got to see what could be possible.”

“He was the heart and soul of the whole idea of this Honors College,” said McCord. “The Honors College has grown around his values and his character.”

As they look toward the future, Honors College staff intend to continue Stewart’s legacy. “He built a strong operation perfectly prepared to move into the future, carrying forward his vision and values,” said McCord, who is coordinating the office now.

Giazzoni agreed. “He brought on a lot of people who shared his values,” noting that the Honors College has been “on autopilot” in the wake of Stewart’s death, “but doing what he would have wanted,” he said.

Among the tangible legacies Stewart left behind are five loose-leaf binders kept in a prominent spot in the Honors College kitchen.

Credited to “Bedlam Publishers,” the binders’ covers are emblazoned with Stewart’s tongue-in-cheek handwritten warnings: “Danger! Ideas and Thoughts! Risky Stuff!” or his advice to “Enjoy, Reflect, Criticize, Advocate.”

The set of “dean’s scrapbooks” bulge with articles and clippings Stewart found interesting. (Staff recently took to collecting electronic versions of Stewart’s selections in a virtual dean’s scrapbook that can be found at

Items range from news reports on expeditions to the Cook preserve to commentaries on educational issues or articles about physics.

Stewart’s final selection closes the book fittingly: It is Jon Meacham’s recent Newsweek article, “In Defense of the Liberal Arts.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Guests depart Heinz Chapel following the April 12 memorial service for University Honors College Dean G. Alec Stewart, who died unexpectedly April 7.  Friends, family, colleagues and students filled the chapel to capacity to pay their respects and reflect on “Doc” Stewart’s contributions to the life of the University during his 38 years at Pitt.   Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg lauded Stewart’s commitment to student attainment, which he said has reached beyond the bounds of the Honors College to “become a defining characteristic of the broader culture of the University.”

Guests depart Heinz Chapel following the April 12 memorial service for University Honors College Dean G. Alec Stewart, who died unexpectedly April 7. Friends, family, colleagues and students filled the chapel to capacity to pay their respects and reflect on “Doc” Stewart’s contributions to the life of the University during his 38 years at Pitt. Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg lauded Stewart’s commitment to student attainment, which he said has reached beyond the bounds of the Honors College to “become a defining characteristic of the broader culture of the University.”

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