Saturday, November 16, 2019

Bill Stewart: In Pace Requiescat

How many times have you known someobody who you wanted to know better, and spend more time with, but allowed time and geography to prevent that? Bill Stewart was such a person for me. I met Bill in the field many times over the years, in Cape May and Delaware, and each time enjoyed a strong handshake, a wonderful smile, and inescapable enthusiasm.
The following is from USA Today

Delaware loses 'non-typical nerd birder,' conservationist and coach Bill Stewart
Maddy Lauria
Delaware News Journal

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect Bill Stewart's former role with the American Birding Association.

It was over a decade ago that Bill Stewart proposed a big idea to a small group of Delaware birders: Raise $17,000 in a single event to purchase a piece of land to preserve as wildlife habitat.
Some thought he was crazy because the most they had ever raised was a few hundred bucks at events like bake sales. But they followed Stewart's confident lead and met their fundraising goal, plus some.
Then they did it again the next year. And the next. And the next.

Now, Delaware’s birding community is mourning the loss of Wilmington resident William “Bill” Stewart Jr., who died Tuesday after battling cancer, while celebrating his legacy of conservation and determination.

“To know Bill was to love him,” said Collin O’Mara, former head of Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and current president/CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “He was a force of nature for nature, and his lifetime of conservation will benefit millions of birds and hundreds of thousands of people for generations.”

Stewart, 67, was a well-known birder, conservationist, educator and former gymnastics coach who helped raise thousands of dollars to permanently preserve nearly 2,000 acres of land for future generations of birders and Delawareans through the Delaware Bird-A-Thon program he started in 2006.

"What he was able to accomplish in a short period of time, and mostly as a volunteer, is absolutely remarkable," said close friend and fellow birder Holly Merker. "It's beyond what most people are capable of accomplishing in a 50-year career."

'He always wanted to lift others up'

Stewart was sick for a long time and had been diagnosed with leukemia 15 years ago. But it was far more important to him that others worried about the birds and conservation efforts than his personal health, said his daughter Maura O'Mahony, whom he called Mollie.

Even on the day he died, he shared a dance with Mollie as he battled stage 4 lung cancer.

"He just fought for everything he wanted," she said. "It's unreal that's he's not here, but I know that we will continue to see him throughout the rest of our lives for sure. His legend has not stopped."
She said he was her best friend and the best dad, someone who set the bar for deciding how invested someone was in a new hobby or goal.

"When anybody would be into something, like something new, we'd ask, 'Are they as into it as Bill Stewart?' As in, are they going to pursue it and forever go with it or just do it a little while?" she said. "That's basically him. He made anyone feel invincible. He made everyone feel like they were somebody."

The father of five and grandfather of three spent most of his life in the Wilmington area, where he became a vital part of Delaware’s birding and conservation communities over the last two decades. His heart was always in Delaware, his colleague Merker said, and Stewart helped put the First State on the birding map by showing visitors and locals the state's beauty and international role in shorebird migrations.

“So much of the progress we made through the Delaware Bayshore Initiative – restoring habitat, increasing access and engaging youth – was because of Bill’s tireless passion and ability to bring folks together,” O'Mara said.

Since that first Bird-A-Thon founded by Stewart in 2006, the event, with support from partners like Delaware Wildlands and others, has raised more than $400,000 to protect properties such as the 600-acre Passmore Farm near Townsend. Last year, he challenged everyone to raise $100,000 and they almost did, bringing in a record $92,000 with an eye on preserving land for shorebird habitat in Sussex County.

Funding from the program that Stewart founded also has helped start a hawk watch program in northern Delaware, as well as a science education grant for researchers.

“It’s made a really big impact, I think, on conservation and bird conservation in Delaware,” said Sally O’Byrne, a fellow birder and longtime friend of Stewart. “It’s just amazing the way he challenged us to do things like that and he just plowed forward and got things done.”

'A force of nature'

A self-described "non-typical nerd birder" because of his athletic background as a surfer and gymnastics coach, Stewart previously told Delaware Online/The News Journal that his goal was to be an ambassador for the birds because they had enriched his life so much.

"I thought it was our responsibility as Delaware birders and concerned conservationists to see what we could do to help the red knot and hopefully not allow them to go extinct," he said in a 2018 interview. "What's so cool is that it doesn't matter what you do, all of us kind of get along because we're all brought together with this commonality of birds."

During the 20 years or so that conservationist and birder Jim White knew Stewart, he was often impressed by Stewart’s energy to tackle so many projects.

“Birders were always interested in conservation, but Bill took it to the level of action, of doing something,” White said. “His real strength was his energy to do something like that, to go out and have everybody work with him.”

Stewart was always willing to help out, White said, especially during the Delmarva Ornithological Society’s annual Christmas bird counts. White realized how much Stewart, who also was a surfer, loved the sea when they were on the water counting birds and looking for seals.

As the winds kicked up water off the shores of Cape Henlopen, Stewart stood on the boat and reveled in the frigid saltwater spray.

Life lessons through sport

In his earlier years, Stewart also was a part of the area's gymnastics community, coaching students full-time at First State Gymnastics from in the 1970s and 1980s.

That’s where he first met gymnastics judge Cheryl Hamilton, who recently judged the World Championship in Germany, as well as the 2016 and 2012 Olympics.

Hamilton said she knew the kids loved working with Stewart, but didn’t realize how much until their kind words came pouring in this week.

“He taught them dedication, perseverance, to accept challenges. That’s just the guy he was,” said Hamilton.

She said Stewart helped some of those students, like Debbie Forgey, get college scholarships and qualify for national events.

Forgey, now a Lincoln, Nebraska, resident, said it was Stewart's coaching skills that helped her get a full college scholarship for gymnastics.

But it was Stewart's ability to make her feel like she could accomplish anything that has stuck with her throughout the decades, ever since she was a 12-year-old girl wearing glasses and a leotard. Stewart nicknamed her "Bug."

"He just has this gift of making you feel like you're important," Forgey said. And it wasn't until his passing and seeing the outpouring of love from former students on social media that made her realize she wasn't the only one he made feel that way.

"I have to laugh about that, that he was able to instill in each one of us enough confidence that we thought we had it. I thought I was the one, but they all were," she said. "That's the most amazing thing to me."

Always working 'full-force'

Stewart also was active in the American Birding Association, where he served as conservation director and hosted youth birding camps out of Lewes. He helped raise the funding needed to install a peregrine falcon camera at the top of the Brandywine Building in Wilmington, where he would host summer watch parties each year.

Professionally, he also spent time as a teacher in Virginia and received his degree in education from West Chester Univerisity. He also had a knack for interior design, which shone through his many years working at Hunt Country Furniture, where he eventually served as executive vice president.
He received numerous awards for his conservation efforts, including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Conservation Champion Award, the U.S. Department of Interior Citizens Award and the 2015 Rosalie Edge Conservation Award from the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, according to the American Birding Association.

In 2011, he founded Red Knot Outfitters, providing private birding guides and tours throughout Delaware and nearby areas, with an emphasis on the spring and fall migrations of shorebirds. That endeavor also focused on education and conservation, Merker said.

They also sold out the first-ever Frontiers in Ornithology Symposium this fall, an effort to help young birders figure out how to turn their passion into careers.

It was Stewart's never-ending passion for conservation that inspired Matthew Sarver to get involved with the Delmarva Ornithological Society – and soon follow in his footsteps as the organization’s conservation chair. Even though they butted heads on many projects, Sarver said the end result was always worth it and that they never let their professional differences get in the way of their friendship.

And it was Stewart’s early appearance to meetings, ready to pop a beer and talk birds or just about life, that Sarver said he’ll remember.

“It’s hard to imagine the organization without him being involved,” Sarver said. “The amount of energy and passion he had for all of these projects was really incredible. He just wanted to get stuff done. That was his legacy.”

A celebration of life for Stewart will be held on Friday from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Delaware Nature Society’s Ashland Nature Center at 3511 Barley Mill Road in Hockessin.

Contact reporter Maddy Lauria at (302) 345-0608, or on Twitter @MaddyinMilford.

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