By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer
With a bellowing laugh, a deep voice and a stature to match at 6 feet 4 inches, Ernest “Doc” Stewart commanded attention. But it was his good nature that won the friendship of some of the most influential men in the military and steered a course for Cannon Air Force Base.
Stewart, who attained legendary status in Clovis as a businessman and a staunch advocate of Cannon, died early Monday morning from heart and pulmonary complications at a Lubbock hospital, according to his family. He was 81.
“He was bigger than life,” said Randy Harris, whose service on the Committee of Fifty overlapped with that of Stewart, one of the original members of the base-advocate group.
“When he went to the Pentagon (to lobby for Cannon), he was characterized as lots of fun, as a friend, and not a threat. He was greeted with open arms by the top Air Force leaders. But he treated everyone the same, whether you were a private, a first-class airman, or a four-star general,” Harris said.
In his years as a base advocate, Stewart secured funding for a string of improvements at the High Plains installation, including the 38,000-acre expansion of the Melrose Bombing Range and the creation of the base’s wastewater treatment plant, which has the capacity to recycle 800,000 gallons of water per day.
He was also an integral force behind construction of a railroad overpass in Clovis.
Stewart settled in Clovis about half a century ago, raising four sons with his wife, while becoming a surrogate father to military men stationed at Cannon.
“He had a great gift for remembering names,” said fellow military advocate and friend Marshall Stinnett. “He would meet all these military people and keep up with them. He would randomly call them up on the telephone just to see how they were doing.”
A swath of land at Cannon was dedicated to Stewart and preserved as a recreation area in 1999 — just one of a banquet of honors Stewart received over the years for his civic efforts.
The countless hours he logged as a volunteer advocate for the base were preceded by six years of service in the U.S. Navy as a chief pharmacist. He earned his nickname, “Doc,” in World War II when he served in the Pacific.
“He did everything from A to Z as a medic. He was the go-to-guy: Whenever they needed help, assistance, materials, bandages, he was the guy,” Harris said.
While in the Pacific, Stewart also earned the love of his wife of 62 years, Martha, who worked there as a nurse.
His fierce dedication to Cannon airmen stemmed, too, from the experience of his eldest son, John, in Vietnam. Troops under his son’s command were circled by the Viet Cong when Air Force jets swooped and scooped the troops from the line of fire.
John Stewart, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, said his father’s influence on his life is far too great to reduce to words.
“First and foremost,” he said, “he was our family leader. He also valued friendships, and that is something he taught all of his sons.”
A native of Paducah, Texas, Doc Stewart balanced the role of loving father with a litany of others.
He bowed out of the military and into the funeral business, where he worked as a mortician. But he left that field because it was difficult for him to handle death, specifically of young people, said his longtime secretary, Margie Tyson.
Stewart decided to sell cars instead, and made a lasting mark there, too, as he moved up the ranks and bought a Chevrolet dealership in Clovis.
“He was competent and competitive, and he had a gift for selling cars,” said Darryle Bender, who bought the Chevrolet dealership from Stewart in 1997, which freed Stewart to pursue his civic interests with even more fervor.
“He was,” Bender said, “a legend.”
Funeral services are pending.
A memorial service for base members, friends and family of Stewart will be held Thursday at Cannon Air Force Base.
Doc Stewart has received dozens of awards and honors for his service to Cannon Air Force Base and the community. Here are a few:
• Named an Air Force honorary chief master sergeant in 1997
• E.O. “Doc” Stewart Family Recreation Area dedicated to Stewart in May 1999
• Clovis/Curry County Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Century in June 2000
• 2005 Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher Distinguished Civilian Humanitarian Award recipient
• Air Combat Command “Action Support Group” founding member and representative
• Honorary Thunderbird
• Named as a commissioner to the New Mexico Base Planning Commission by the governor
“His genuine concern for this military community has left a lasting mark, not only on Cannon, but also on the entire Air Force — it is a legacy which will not soon be forgotten.”
— Cannon Air Force Base 27th Wing Commander Col. John Posner
“Doc’s life was an example of a sacrifice and commitment. He gave so much to his family, the community of Clovis, his church and the military, particularly the men and women of Cannon Air Force Base.”
— Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.
“Doc Stewart was one of the all-time great citizens of our state, and he did more for eastern New Mexico than anyone else I can think of.”
— Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.
“I don’t know that Doc ever met a stranger.”
— Margie Tyson, Stewart’s longtime secretary
“He laughed a lot. His laugh was probably the most recognizable feature that anybody would notice. It was a laugh you will only hear from him. A laugh that really had his identity tied to it.”
— Darryle Bender, a friend of Stewart
“Doc gained the respect of senior military leaders throughout the Air Force, which was reflected by the fact that he played a role in every decision affecting Cannon since 1968.”
— U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M.