Do the right thing Former state legislator finds great value in 'what is right'

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

John Stewart, former chairman of both the House Judiciary Committee and the Higher Education Appropriations Committee, likes a good quote. They are everywhere in his law office, which is located in a meticulously restored historic home on Main Street in Plymouth.

His collection of quotes runs the gamut from Noble Prize winners, to legendary football coaches, to political icons. He even has a place for treasured sayings from his late mom.

In many respects, they serve as his daily bread, offering the sustenance to feed his personal and professional soul. He is particularly fond of a timeless saying from Martin Luther King Jr.

"The time is always right to do what is right."

It dovetails nicely with a quote of Stewart's own.

"I don't have time for anything that is not based on the truth," Stewart said.

Such a saying should have been required reading for one of Stewart's former legislative colleagues - Kwame Kilpatrick.

The former Detroit mayor, now serving a second stint behind bars, cut his political teeth in the State Legislature, at a time when Stewart was serving as state representative. Stewart remembers him well.

"He tried to lead by bullying," Stewart said of Kilpatrick's legacy in Lansing. "It was a style that has certainly caught up with him over the years."

In contrast, Stewart has long admired the political style of William Milliken, the four-term Republican governor of Michigan. Stewart is so fond of the longest serving governor in state history that he has a bound volume of Milliken's most acclaimed speeches while in office. He refers to it often for inspiration, just as he regularly chats by phone with the former governor, now 88 and a resident of Traverse City.

"Governor Milliken was an exceptional leader with a quiet, effective, and dignified style," Stewart said. "He personifies honesty and integrity, and we would all do well to mirror his actions and teachings."

On one recent day, in early May, Stewart took time out from his law practice to call the retired governor, inviting him to visit Plymouth this summer for the 40th anniversary of the Plymouth Community Arts Council and the 38th year since the Artrain made its way to the quaint city. The phone call offered Governor Milliken the chance to return the favor, praising Stewart as a "rare individual" who stood for "the best things" that government had to offer during his three terms in the state House of Representatives.

Stewart, who served in the State Legislature from 2000-06, was a state spelling bee champion as a student. He has always tried to be mindful of a statement from his mother: "Always be kind and patient and you will be a winner."

He hopes to find that winning formula again this year as a candidate for a State Senate seat in District 7. He switched parties several years ago after expressing his disenchantment with the direction of the GOP.

"I'm pro-choice and pro public education," Stewart said. "Higher education is the essence of recovery for our economy."

Stewart, twice a veteran of the Detroit Marathon, graduated in 1967 from Wyandotte Roosevelt High School, where he was the drum major in the marching band. He earned his bachelor's degree from Eastern Michigan University and a master of public administration from Wayne State, obtaining his juris doctor degree from the former Detroit College of Law, now Michigan State University College of Law. He has been in private practice for the past 33 years, principally handling probate, estate, and divorce work.

"I'm a veteran of a thousand divorce cases and a thousand drunk driving cases, so you have to be a positive person to do this kind of legal work," Stewart said. "In virtually every case, you are seeing people at their worst. Staying upbeat is an absolute necessity."

He undoubtedly inherited that trait from his parents, Virginia and Robert. His mother was the youngest of 12 children, growing up in the west Michigan town of Holland, eventually serving as a nurse at Sparrow Hospital. She was raised during the Great Depression, imparting on her son the value of "hard work and discipline."

His father, an insurance agent in the Downriver area, was a fullback for the Ohio Wesleyan football team, playing in the first game ever at the "Big House" on October 1, 1927. Even more impressive, his father established the "International Perfect Attendance Record" for the Kiwanis Club, never missing a weekly meeting over a span of 65-1/2 years. He attended his final meeting while stationed in a hospital bed at age 92, as members of the Wyandotte Kiwanis Club gathered around him to mark the milestone occasion.

"Needless to say, he was a remarkable man in every sense of the word," Stewart said of his father. "He was a mentor to me and many others."

With his father's encouragement, Stewart became involved in public service in 1988 when he was elected to the Plymouth Township Board of Trustees, spending four years on the panel. He successfully ran for state office in 2000, twice earning re-election before he returned to his law office because of term limits.

In 2002, Stewart was named "Legislator of the Year" by the Small Business Association of Michigan. Three years later, as chairman of the House Higher Education Appropriations Committee, Stewart presided as the presidents of the three major research universities in Michigan testified for the first time as the "University Research Corridor."

Over the course of his legislative career, Stewart was a popular choice as a commencement speaker, delivering graduation speeches at EMU, Oakland University, and Lake Superior State University. His April 2005 speech at the EMU Convocation Center coincided with the day that his daughter, Laura, graduated from Western Michigan University. Like a good father, he was on hand for the WMU ceremony as well, watching proudly as his daughter earned her bachelor's degree cum laude.

He also could take pride in reflecting upon her athletic accomplishments. She was an All-American softball pitcher for the Broncos, holding the single season record for strikeouts and victories for the Mid-American Conference squad. In 2003, she was chosen as the Most Valuable Player in the MAC Championship tournament. A year later, she was selected to compete for the Midwest University All-Star Team, competing against the U.S. Olympic squad and its ace pitcher Jennie Finch. She now teaches and coaches in Charlotte, N.C., the same southern city where her sister, Sarah, works in a marketing capacity for a major department store. Sarah, also an honors graduate, earned her bachelor's degree from Grand Valley State University.

Stewart and his wife, Beth, met while singing together in the church choir. As the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, she probably figured it was only fitting that she would meet her life mate in church. The couple, married for 31 years, shares a passion for music and history. Beth, who earned a master's degree in historic preservation from EMU, was director of the Plymouth Historical Museum for 17 years before becoming executive director of the Plymouth Canton Symphony Orchestras several years ago. She is in charge of all administrative, public relations, fund-raising, and educational activities for the musical organization that includes three performing ensembles.

As such, she can appreciate her husband's own musical talents. He is a vocalist who trained at Interlochen, the renowned international music and arts academy in northern Michigan. He has performed "The National Anthem" before 14 Detroit Tiger games and two Detroit Red Wing contests. He regularly is asked to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Plymouth Community Band Concerts on Thursday evenings throughout the summer in Kellogg Park.

As a baritone, Stewart has a certain style all his own. Rich and distinctive, for sure. Yet, Jim Campbell, former president and general manager of the Tigers, wanted to make sure when Stewart was invited to sing "The National Anthem" at a Tiger game in the early '70s.

Campbell, you see, was still smarting from an unexpected musical experience before the fifth game of the 1968 World Series in Detroit. On that day, a popular singer named Jose Feliciano had been invited to sing "The National Anthem" prior to a pivotal game between the Tigers and defending champion St. Louis Cardinals. A native of Puerto Rico, Feliciano had gained fame for his hit song, "Light My Fire."

On that autumn day in Detroit, Feliciano performed what could charitably be called a "non-traditional" rendition of America's song, mixing a bit of folk and Latin jazz to the dismay of a national television audience. The outcry was loud and long. Perhaps it was still reverberating in the ears of Campbell several years later when Stewart was about to set foot on the field to sing his heart out.

"He had one message for me," Stewart said of the no-nonsense Tiger executive. "'Sing it straight,' he told me. I complied, of course."

Published: Fri, Jun 11, 2010

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