Spend a few minutes with Shelley Stewart, and you will come away with one thought. At 82 years young, the renowned advertising exec may be the most positive person on the planet.
“We have the privilege of working every day with a man who leads us, who energizes the room when he walks in,” said Bill Todd, the president of o2ideas, which Stewart founded 50 years ago. “But even when he’s not here we feel his presence because he’s created this spirit of togetherness, a sense of ‘I really care about you.’”
That’s the Shelley Stewart the Birmingham, Alabama business community knows, as do clients across the U.S. and the world – from Honda to Verizon to Buffalo Rock.
The Shelley Stewart they know is a man who sees the good in everyone.
But once you really know Shelley Stewart, his outlook and contributions are even more remarkable.
Born in 1934, reared in the African-American neighborhood of Rosedale, south of downtown Birmingham, Stewart grew up in an era of segregation and Jim Crow laws with three brothers. Still, life was good until everything changed in a moment’s time.
At age 5, Stewart was sitting on the front porch with his older sibling, Bubba, when his father raced past them and hurried into the house. Suddenly, there was a commotion.
“Mama was running up the hallway trying to get away from him, and he had an axe,” Stewart remembered. “She hollered, ‘Don’t take me away from my children!’”
The pleas were to no avail. At an age when children should be most innocent, Stewart and his 7-year-old brother witnessed their mother’s brutal death, at the hands of their own father.
Before his 8th birthday, Bubba left for parts unknown. Two years later, Shelley Stewart did the same. He survived for months finding temporary shelters and scavenging for food scraps tossed out behind grocery stores and restaurants.
Once outside a restaurant, an older African-American worker caught him scrounging for food. Instead of feeling empathy, the man chased the 7-year-old away with a swift kick and a flurry of curses. It was time to move on, further from the neighborhood that once offered peace and comfort.
It was getting late, when he noticed a barn in the distance.
“Something told me go inside that barn and sleep. I was tired and I was hungry, so I headed that way. But when I got to the breezeway I heard some voices. ‘Oh, God, they’re going to kill me.’”
Frightened, finding a place to hide, Stewart continued to listen. One voice had a familiar cadence.
“There was a voice I’d heard before,” Stewart continued. “I was hiding on one end, but I thought to myself, ‘that sounds like Bubba.’ Lo and behold, it was my brother, who had taken refuge in that barn two years before.”
The barn belonged to Stringfellow Stables, a local outfit that trained Tennessee Walking Horses. The owner, a white businessman with a successful lumber company, was named Earl Stringfellow. Two years earlier, he’d taken in Stewart’s brother, Bubba. Now, the Stringfellow family was willing to take in another orphaned youth.
For the first time in memory, Shelley Stewart had stability, and a place he could call home.
As life returned to normal, Stewart returned to school. Years later, he remembers his first grade teacher: Mamie Foster. He still recalls her words and deeds.
“One day she grabbed me and hugged me – I’d never been hugged before – and said, ‘If you learn to read, if you get a good education, you can be anything you want to be.’”
The words of Stewart’s teacher provided a guidepost. He learned to love reading, he got a solid education and went to work, as a young adult, as a popular Birmingham radio personality, having a huge following that included both the city’s black and white teens. He became known as Shelley The Playboy due to his smooth, on-air persona.
During the 1950s and ‘60s, Birmingham was about to explode. It was the epicenter of the human rights struggle referred to as the Civil Rights Movement, a focus of local, national and international attention. Amid political rancor and social upheaval, Stewart was the melodic, calming voice that came over the airwaves, the voice of reason amid chaos.
“He used the opportunity at the radio station and the radio market as a platform, as well as to talk about the value of an education, learning how to read, staying in school and make something of yourself,” remembered Perry Ward, a life-long friend who serves as the president of Lawson State Community College.
Stewart also took action. In the wake of the deadly bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, he used the airwaves to help conduct the famous children’s march. What started peacefully, with children leaving school to protest segregation in Alabama’s largest city, ended with Bull Connor ordering the use of fire hoses and police dogs on the children. The moment galvanized a nation, and brought Birmingham’s injustices to the attention of the world.
Bowed, but unbroken, Stewart continued with his message of positivity, of gains made through education. In 1967, he became a silent partner alongside a Jewish friend for a fledgling advertising agency – an unheard of move in the Deep South. Fifty years later, o2ideas remains a fixture in the business community.
Years have passed, but Shelley Stewart hasn’t changed much.
“This is a man who had every right to be bitter, yet somehow he chose early on to pursue a different path,” said Andrew Westmoreland, president of Samford University. “It’s that irrepressibly positive spirit about him that has compelled him forward. I just wish that all of us could have, in just a portion, the positive attitude he has. I’ve never heard him speak ill of another human.”
Think back to that time, years ago, where the only food to be had was what he could find behind a restaurant. To most it was refuse.
To Shelley Stewart, it was nourishment.
If he found bad bread, he’d pick it clean until he found edible parts. That lesson taught him to look at people the same way.
“If there’s a human being sitting there, I’d never throw the whole human being away,” Stewart said. “There’s some good in all of us. If there’s good, I’ll take it. And if there’s bad, I’m going to find the good part and turn the bad part good.”
Shelley Stewart was the 2014 recipient of Regions’ History In Motion award, a part of the company’s annual Black History Month celebration. In honor of his mother, Shelley Stewart founded the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, which has spread to 47 states and Canada, to help educators and local leaders reduce the dropout rate of students.