By JASON MORTON, The Tuscaloosa News
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — In Alabama politics, there are players and there are observers. And then, every once in a while, someone comes along to help make sense of it all.
William H. “Bill” Stewart Jr. was among the best of the latter, spending the most of five decades educating students, reporters and the voting public alike on the complexities that influenced state and local politics. Alabama lost that voice on Sunday when Stewart, after battling illness, died at the age of 80.
A Hartselle native who taught political science as a University of Alabama professor for more than 40 years, Stewart continued to teach will beyond his retirement, serving as a professor emeritus in the political science department, where he was recognized as an expert on Alabama politics.
Across his career, his students have gone on to hold elected offices at the highest levels, said his wife, Connie.
“He was always mentoring students. That was his passion,” she said. “And he was just so proud of all of his students and the achievements that they made.”
Counted among those students included governors, including Alabama’s last Democratic governor, Don Siegelman, and numerous Alabama legislators.
But his influence wasn’t reserved to just one party, as Alabama’s own Republican Secretary of State, John Merrill, can attest.
Merrill never had Stewart as a professor during his years as a student in the 1980s. Rather, their relationship – and his influence on Merrill’s own approach to politics – began after Merrill’s graduation, usually over dinners at an Olive Garden in Tuscaloosa.
“There’s no doubt I was a better political science student (because of) Bill Stewart, even though I never had him for a class,” Merrill said. “The loss of Bill Stewart is a loss for all who aspire to have quality representatives in our local, county, state, and federal government positions.
“As one of the most knowledgeable and insightful observers of politics, he was a voice of reason and objectivity that cannot be replaced.”
Beyond politics, Stewart was an avid runner – he participated in several marathons and 5K runs, his wife said – and a devout Christian, attending the University Church of Christ for more than 50 years.
Stewart’s son William H. Stewart III, who goes by Trey, said he didn’t catch the politics bug from his dad. Rather, it was the educator and spiritual leader that swayed him most.
Trey Stewart, 38, attributed both his earning of a Ph.D in educational psychology and his concerns for her fellow man to his dad’s guidance.
“My dad was a Christian – a person of faith, sincere faith – and, for me, as his son, a lot of who I am I got from him in terms of my own religious faith,” Trey Stewart said. “And I try to be an empathetic person. Those aspects of my character I would say I got, to a large degree, from him.”
But for scores of others across Alabama’s political landscape, Stewart’s legacy will be his approach to political analysis that was rooted not just in the events of the day, but also in the history of Alabama and how the echoes of years past were influencing current decisions.
Much of that perspective came from Stewart growing up under his father, William H. Stewart Sr., who served in the Alabama Legislature.
“That’s where he got this love of politics from,” Connie Stewart said. “He saw how the political machinations worked here in the state and was fascinated by it. And he really loved it. It was in his blood.”