Home Life-Free Minden school namesakes: William Green Stewart

Minden school namesakes: William Green Stewart

This week’s column is another in my series of articles about the persons for whom present or past Webster Parish Schools were named. This week’s subject is William Green Stewart and I took a short-cut as much of the content today is taken directly from a 1955 biographical sketch of Stewart from the Webster Review. In the summer of 1955, the Webster Parish schools were wrapping up a very busy three-year process of school construction and renovation that had seen a new Minden and Webster High schools built and a new African-American elementary school, called Northwest Elementary constructed on the west side of Minden. At its July meeting, the Webster Parish School Board decided to give the three stand-alone elementary schools new names, in honor of significant individuals in local educational history. (The fourth elementary school, housed on the campus of Webster High School was already informally known as J. L. Jones Elementary and a stand-alone version of that school would come in about four years.) The planned new names were East Side, changed to E. S. Richardson; Northwest, changed to Jerry A. Moore and West Side, to William Green Stewart. To familiarize residents with the honored individuals, the newspaper provided biographical sketches of the men. Here is their sketch on the life of Stewart. I chose to include it because of its particular eloquence. While I cannot document the fact, I assume this sketch was written by noted Louisiana author, Samuel Stewart Mims, who was a nephew of William Green Stewart:

“William Green Stewart was born on October 25, 1856, of the marriage of Dougald Stewart and Mary Culbertson. His life work opening on the farm of his parents in that part of Webster Parish which was at the time a part of Claiborne parish. Though he lived on a farm in the country, this relative isolation did not seem to matter. He had the personal charm, savoir faire, and culture of a man enjoying the privileges of city life.

“His love for the progress of public education perhaps had its inception in his early struggles for his own attainments, for farming at that time was primary in the lives of our people and as a lad he was only able to obtain an elemental knowledge by intervals of study in the primitive schoolhouse at Pine Grove (editor’s note – where he was taught by future legislator G. L. P. Wren grandfather of Marcus Wren who would marry a Stewart descendant), then without a standard of study dependent upon the natural attainments of the local schoolmaster.

“The study spent by him at the local school however stimulated his ambition and through his own efforts after he had reached maturity, he enjoyed a further year of study at the then existing college at Homer. He afterwards engaged in the profession of teaching in various schools in Louisiana and Texas until about the year of 1879, when he accepted the appointment as deputy sheriff under Dr. S. J. Harrell, then sheriff of this parish. He continued his faithful service in this capacity under the succeeding sheriff, J. W. Reagan, until he decided to retire from public office in 1888 and resume his occupation of farming on the purchase of the farm near Minden which he managed until his death.

“His knowledge of civic affairs and the call of the people for his guidance on such matters prevented his devoting his whole attention to agrarian pursuits and he became a member of the parish police jury and later its president, continuing in this service for a number of years.

“Mr. Stewart’s interest in the general education of the youth of his parish would not allow him to retire to private live and immediately after his retirement from the police jury he was elected a member of the parish school board in which office he continued until his death, October 31, 1925, serving for 12 years as the president of that body and being in active service until his last illness.

“It was in the capacity of a member of the school board that Mr. Stewart perhaps rendered his greatest service to his parish.

“Mr. Stewart has been described as having an abiding faith and loyalty to the cause of education in Webster Parish. He stood for what he thought to be the best interests of the children regardless of public opinion, the final answer to all matters of administration being the decisions by the board. Mr. Stewart believed that every child had an inherent right to educated and to extend educational opportunities to all children was his heart’s desire. He devoted the larger part of his time to the study of school administration problems, read widely and was considered to be one of the best informed school board members or presidents in the state by educators.

“During his tenure of office the schools of Webster Parish became thoroughly standardized and are perhaps better developed in most particulars than any other public schools in the state.

“During his presidency of the school board, many modern public schools were built, equipped in a thorough manner and from a motley arrangement of scattered  and unstandardized schools over the parish there has evolved the present system of consolidated schools for the pupils and the construction and establishment of 10 high schools at strategic points.”

I thought that sketch was too well-written to pass up, but I will quantify a bit some of the information and provide a few more details. W. G. Stewart married Nora Killen, daughter of pioneer settler John Sidney Killen, in 1881 and the couple had ten children. Ida Nora Stewart (Mrs. J. G. Pope); Rosa Claire Stewart (died at age 1); Graham Stewart; Ruth Leal Stewart (Mrs. Lawson Davis); Sidney Albert Stewart; Parry Dougald Stewart; James Russell Stewart; Willie Killen Stewart (died at age 4); Leoner Stewart (died as an infant); and Thomas David Stewart. Local residents are so very familiar with his descendants through Ruth – which include Elnora Davis Quade and her son John Quade, and through James Stewart whose daughters included Nora Stewart Young, Gay Stewart Wren, Virginia Stewart Fox, Sue Stewart Dunn and Nancy Stewart Craig. As mentioned in the sketch, Stewart was heading the School Board at a key time in Webster Parish history. It was under his leadership that E. S. Richardson was brought to our parish and a renaissance of Webster Parish schools began. While so much credit is given to Richardson for his innovative programs of school standardization and consolidation that made Webster a model system for the rest of the nation, it cannot be overlooked that Stewart was a full partner in those programs and, as the head of the School Board, had to acquiesce in every single move Richardson made. If Stewart had not been open to the great changes, the local system would have never progressed. On several occasions Stewart stepped up to protect Richardson’s initiatives. In 1925, shortly before his death, Stewart orchestrated the pay raise to keep Richardson in Webster Parish. That decision ended being litigated before being upheld in the courts after Stewart’s death. It is clear to see why the schools chose to honor him. It is very sad that with the closing and demolition of Stewart Elementary, a reference to his legacy is gone.

A closing section is needed to discuss the erection of the school that bore Stewart’s name. After the new Minden High School was constructed in 1909, it was home to all the elementary age children in Minden. That continued after the building of a separate high school building in 1924. By 1945, the old school was becoming overpopulated and outdated. A move arose in the local community to construct a new elementary school, perhaps at a different location. To make that happen a bond issue was passed by local voters on November 5, 1945. The election appropriated $400,000 to cover the cost of an elementary school building or (important language) buildings. Despite the passage of the bond issue, for a time nothing happened, 1945 became 1946 and then 1947 and the School Board had taken no action. Reasons cited included a shortage of building materials in the post-war economy and the feeling that a boost in prices because of post-war inflation might ease and the appropriated funds would go further if the system waited a bit longer. By the fall of 1947, the community leaders of Minden had waited long enough. A committee was formed out of local civic organizations including the Lions and Civitan Clubs. That group came forward and presented the School Board with a resolution calling on the board to take action and build two new elementary schools in Minden at sites away from Minden High School to provide a more neighborhood school approach. The Board took the resolution under consideration and came back with a plan. They reported that the money appropriated in 1945 was not enough to pay for two schools. A new bond issue was placed on the ballot for November 18, 1947 adding an additional $175,000 to pay for the schools. That measure was approved and plans moved forward to build one elementary school in the eastern part of Minden and one in the Western part.

In the early part of 1948, sites were picked for the two schools. A plat of land in East Minden was donated by the Turner brothers in an area where they had once operated a lumber mill. East Side elementary would be located at that site. In West Minden, a plat of land on the crest of Winchester Hill along Middle Landing Street was donated by the Crichton Family for West Side Elementary. In April 1948, the contract to build the schools was awarded to the W. C. Salley Company of Monroe. Board President J. E. Harper revealed the architectural plans drawn up by Neild and Somdal of Shreveport for both schools and reported that the names East Side and West Side were only temporary markers, other names might well be applied. The schools were completed and opened to students in the Fall of 1949. Of course, those “temporary marker” names remained in place for over five years until the summer of 1955 when the new names were applied, and the memory of William Green Stewart was honored with a school named for him.

So, there you have the story of William Green Stewart, partner with E. S. Richardson in an era of tremendous progress in local education. Both men were honored by a school being named in their memory. Unfortunately, the school in Stewart’s honor is now only a memory, but that does not make his service any less an important Echo of our Past.

Webster Parish Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald