In memoriam: Glenn Alexander ‘Doc’ Stewart

By Olivia Garber

‘Doc’ Stewart never shut the doors to his office, because he insisted on letting… ‘Doc’ Stewart never shut the doors to his office, because he insisted on letting everyone walk in. His funeral was no different.

The doors to Heinz Chapel remained propped open during the hour-long memorial ceremony yesterday — flooding the dim sanctuary with the sunlight of a warm afternoon.

Mourners gathered in Heinz Memorial Chapel to celebrate the life of Glenn Alexander Stewart, dean of the University Honors College. They came to remember him as a dean, a teacher, a friend and a father.

Mourners surpassed the chapel’s 400-person seating capacity. Latecomers lined the length of the chapel, leaning against the gray stone walls, their faces shadowed by panes of stained glass looming above them. The dress was eclectic; somber suits and conservative heels mingled with khaki shorts and bookbags.

Stewart died at 69 on April 7 after a long illness. Creator of the Honors College, Stewart leaves behind a legacy of intellectual achievement and countless stories about his personality. Since the development of the Honors College, Pitt has had six Rhodes Scholars.

Stewart is survived by his wife, Carolyn Stewart, a mathematics and computer science teacher at Franklin Regional High School; children Kirsten Marie Stewart and Colin Rutledge Stewart; and grandchildren Miles Alexander Rehling, Lauren Elizabeth Rehling and Bevin Kelly Stewart.

At the University

Stewart began his career at Pitt in 1972 as an assistant physics professor. Stewart received an undergraduate degree in physics at Amherst College before attending graduate school at the University of Washington, in Seattle. Stewart received a master’s degree in physics, a master’s degree in nuclear engineering and a doctorate in solid state physics.

During his stay at Pitt, Stewart studied phases of atoms absorbed onto graphite surfaces, replicating a two-dimensional world. He was known to joke about his work, saying he studied what the world would be like if it were flat.

Five years after he came to Pitt, Stewart began what would become one of his most memorable achievements at the University.

“Many professors don’t know where their office is in five years. Alec started a legacy in that time,” Mary Ellen Callahan, who works for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and sits on Pitt’s Board of Trustees, said during the memorial service.

Stewart became the head of the Honors Program shortly after it was established in 1977. The program evolved into the University Honors College in 1986.

Despite opposition from “bureaucratic enemies of ‘life above the neck,’” as Provost James Maher said during the ceremony, Stewart worked tirelessly to provide students with the opportunity to achieve what he called, “intellectual attainment.”

Sophomore Rebekah Lynn defined “intellectual attainment” as “intellectual hedonism — learning stuff because it pleases you.”

“The Honors College resonates with the spirit and personality he has,” Edward McCord, director of programming and special projects for the Honors College, said Friday. “There is no recipe for [the Honors College]. It grew organically around Alec.”

The Honors College was not Stewart’s only contribution to the University. Ten years ago, he received a phone call from an old childhood friend telling him that land in Wyoming was full of dinosaur bones. Stewart saw this as a learning opportunity for students and began his quest to obtain the land for the University, McCord said.

“I told Alec, ‘This is a crazy idea,’” he said. But Stewart made up his mind.

Two weeks later, Stewart, McCord and a geologist landed in Wyoming. They were welcomed with a raging blizzard, winds up to 50 mph and below-zero temperatures.

The trio spent three days holed up in a ranch, not seeing any dinosaur bones, McCord said. “Alec loved that sort of thing.”

In 2006, Allen Cook, the owner of the land in Wyoming, donated the 4,700 acres of land, worth about $7 million, to the University.

“Alec was able to increase the University’s real estate 45 times with one handshake,” Callahan said.

As a teacher

Stewart was a man with many titles, but above all, he was a teacher. A voracious reader, he immersed himself in the humanities and literature, although physics was always his greatest love, McCord said.

Mike Giazzoni, an adviser in the Honors College, described Stewart as “a scientist with the heart of a humanist” Friday.

Stewart was able to combine the formulaic nature of physics with fundamental philosophy in his physics class.

Rachel Harris, a sophomore majoring in chemistry, took Honors Physics with Stewart. She said after the ceremony that Stewart taught students to apply abstract, philosophical thinking to physics.

“The way most people learn physics is by memorizing formulas and plugging in numbers. We took F=ma [force equals mass times acceleration] and derived all of the mechanics by reasoning, and it made all the difference,” Harris said.

During the yearly Chancellor Scholarship interviews, Stewart would focus on the individual, not the resumé.

Christopher Chirdon, assistant analyst in the Honors College, said Saturday that during the interviews, Stewart would play the first 15 minutes perfectly straight. The interviewees were typically people with perfect resumés and perfect SAT scores, and Stewart would conduct the interview in a “deanly” manner. Then, with utmost sincerity, Stewart would ask the student, “How do you feel about insecticide?”

“It was to get a feeling about who the person was,” Chirdon said.

Andrea Richards, a Chancellor Scholarship nominee, had a discussion about the merits of exercise during her interview with Stewart.

“We talked about everything other than what I wrote on paper,” Richards, a sophomore majoring in Russian and Chinese, said after the ceremony.

Upon discovery of Richards’ interest in China, Stewart gave her a book about China’s rise to power.

This was a practice that almost got him in trouble.

Provost Maher recalled the incident at the memorial service.

“I received a visit from emissaries from the internal auditors. They told me with some gravity that there was this dean giving away University books,” Maher said.

Maher was able to placate the auditors with the promise that he would get Stewart to keep a log of who he gave books to — a story that spurred a hearty chuckle throughout the church.

Chirdon said Stewart’s main philosophy was that the University was for students and that students are above all else.

“The least likely place to see him was in his office playing dean,” Nathan Hilberg, director of Academic Affairs for the Honors College, said Friday.

“He always arranged everything around his top priority — students. I never saw him send anyone away,” McCord said. “He was a solid anchor of calmness for students.”

Honors College prankster

Stewart was a spectacle-wearing, tweed-sporting person who loved to pull a good prank.

Every so often, Stewart would poke his head into an Honors classroom, Hilberg said. His face completely serious, Stewart would look directly into a speaker’s eyes and utter without breaking a smile, “Bullsh*t.”

Stewart would shed his authoritative side, as well as his sweater vest, during Halloween. On October 31, Stewart would transform from the dean of the Honors College to Captain Jack Sparrow, a werewolf or a monster from the children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are.”

Stewart was often the victim of pranks, but it was something that he encouraged, Chirdon said.

During the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the Honors Program was on the 17th floor, Stewart’s office was adjacent to a classroom, Chirdon said. One day, he left his office unlocked, and students swapped all of his belongings with the stuff in the classroom.

“When Doc came in the next day, he laughed his butt off and just switched rooms,” Chirdon said.

Stewart’s interests were not limited to physics and pranks. He loved to bike throughout Oakland and drink fermented mare’s milk while camping in Mongolia.

He was also fond of conversation.

Stewart, who knew Morse code, would hang radio transmitters on trees while on the Honors College’s Scholars Retreat. McCord said that one time Stewart had a Morse code conversation with a ship captain on the North Atlantic.

Stewart had the ability to make anyone feel instantly at ease with him.

“Even though everyone will say he made people feel special, that doesn’t compromise his sincerity,” Hilberg said.

When McCord first met him in 1983, he felt an instant rapport with Stewart.

“All I knew is that instantly I liked him,” McCord said.

When Richards was interviewing for a Chancellor’s Scholarship, she didn’t feel the pressure.

“It felt like a conversation with a long-lost uncle,” Richards said.

Stewart was a valued member of Pitt with a unique presence that cannot be replaced.

“The Honors College has lost its captain,” Hilberg said.