Harrison County

In his 85 years, Bruce Stewart had a hand in everything Biloxi

Bruce Stewart
Bruce Stewart

The life of Carl Bruce Stewart, who was raised in West Virginia but told people he got to Biloxi as soon as he could, reflects the history of his adopted city.

By the time he died June 21 at age 85, he had risen in his career from a shop teacher, to principal during the integration of Biloxi schools, to assistant superintendent and interim superintendent. He was chairman of the Biloxi Planning Commission for 16 years as the city went through hard economic times and boom years. When his family’s home was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina, he built a guest cottage to live in with materials salvaged from the piles of debris left from other homes in Biloxi.

He was a husband, father and volunteer extraordinaire. It’s almost impossible to list all the awards he received and the ways he left his mark on the community.

“He was the kind of guy to not sit down and watch TV,” said Alton Bankston, who taught school at Biloxi High for five years and served on the school board.

In college, Stewart was president of his fraternity, and while serving in the U.S. Army in Korea he was decorated for meritorious service. He began teaching industrial arts at Biloxi Central Junior High in 1959, and Bankston said, “He had the patience of Job when it comes to working with wood and with kids.

As a principal, he began the first vocational program for dropouts and the first vocational rehabilitation program for the mentally disabled students on the secondary level. As an administrator, he found grant money to add four science classrooms to Biloxi High.

Bankston was on the school board at the time the district began integration and said the question was, “Who do we send to Nichols?” Nicholas was the black high school that became a junior high school after integration.

“I was the first white individual in that school,” Stewart later told the Sun Herald. “The black community really went out of their way to make sure integration worked. I certainly had a lot of apprehension. They just took me under their arms and took care of me. They’re the ones who made sure it worked.”

His wife, Wanda Stewart, said she was concerned about his safety in the time following the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Bobby Kennedy. “But Bruce was a man who thrived on challenge and working things out. He was the perfect person to put there because he never really saw color. He saw students,” she said.

“His son and I were best friends growing up, so he was like a second father to me,” said Edward Gemmill. Stewart got him involved in Biloxi Boys Club. “He presented me with my high school diploma,” he said, and encouraged him to join the Jaycees and Kiwanis. Their families went to church together at First Baptist Biloxi and Stewart co-chaired Biloxi’s Tricentennial celebration in 1999, while Gemmill went on to become a Biloxi councilman.

Paul Tisdale, Biloxi councilman and former Biloxi superintendent, said Stewart had retired by the time he arrived at the district in 1996. He was very engaged in the community, Tisdale said, and the Stewarts were “just a good family.”

Stewart and his wife met in college at Southern Miss. Her maiden name was Stewart — spelled the same way — so it didn’t change after they were married but caused confusion when she filled out forms.

She became a teacher after their six children were all in school and she taught speech, drama and theater at local schools and colleges. While he was serving in the community, her personal outlet was singing with the Gulf Coast Opera.

“He always came to my shows and brought the children to see their mother,” she said.

They now have 10 grandsons, two granddaughters and several international exchange students they hosted and count as family. She jokes that occasionally the family would see him between his many community activities.

“He was always involved helping somebody,” said David Washer, who got to know Stewart in 1975 when he was invited to join Kiwanis Club of Biloxi. Washer was appointed to the Biloxi Planning Commission in 1982 and he followed Stewart as chairman in 1994. “We had a lot of good years that we worked together,” he said.

“He was a man who liked to serve,” his wife said, and he didn’t just join but became a leader in the Biloxi Kiwanis Club, Coast Chamber, American Legion, Harrison County United Way, The Salvation Army, the Boys & Girls Clubs, Harrison County Cancer Crusade and many other organizations. He was the Biloxi Jaycees’ Outstanding Young Man of the Year in 1968 and was awarded the Spirit of the Coast Award from Mississippi Coast Chamber.

When he won the American Legion’s Good Neighbor award, the nomination said he “helped so very much in assuring each child of receiving a quality education during these very very trying times of school integration.” He was Biloxi’s 50th Outstanding Citizen and the Biloxi Kiwanis Club declared a “Bruce Stewart Day” when he achieved perfect attendance for 35 years. He also led the club’s Habitat House project.

In addition to building Habitat homes in South Mississippi, he joined Baptist Builder Mission trips to the Ukraine, Argentina, Scotland and Guatemala. When they got to the Ukraine to build a church, his wife recalls, they had to mill their own wood. In Scotland, they took down castle walls filled with horse hair and sawdust.

In Biloxi, the Stewarts bought an 1885 home on the Back Bay that still had damage from Hurricane Camille. “It was falling apart, The city was going to tear it down,” she said. As a builder, Stewart saw the potential and restored it. “We were in it about nine years before Katrina got it,” she said.

They later rebuilt on the same site, but first he constructed a “debris house” with donated wood, drywall and light fixtures and things he found in debris piles, pulling together pieces of old Biloxi and giving it new life in their two-bedroom guest cottage.

“I bought the vinyl siding, windows, doors and metal for the roof,” Stewart told the Sun Herald. “I only paid about $25,000. Everything else I collected.”