After 42 years, Malvern Prep’s "Stew" is moving on

After 42 years at Malvern Prep, Jim Stewart is stepping aside as president of the school — but not before packing for a service trip with students to Peru. "I knew I wanted to be more involved than just a teacher." TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
After 42 years at Malvern Prep, Jim Stewart is stepping aside as president of the school — but not before packing for a service trip with students to Peru. "I knew I wanted to be more involved than just a teacher." TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 02, 2012

Suitcases were piled high behind Jim Stewart’s desk in the president’s office at Malvern Preparatory School the other day — an apt metaphor, even if they had nothing to do with his departure from the Main Line campus later this month after a memorable 42-year career as a teacher, coach, and administrator.

Instead, the luggage was for one final learning adventure with Malvern Prep students in a remote corner of the Peruvian desert 3,500 miles away — the fourth time Stewart has taken high school students there to connect with Villanova University students on a volunteer mission.

"Most homes have dirt floors, adobe structure, no electricity, no sanitary facilities," Stewart said. "The [Malvern] kids thought they were going to change them, but they came back changed. The people have nothing and they’re very happy. Here we have everything and we can’t get along with our neighbors."

Stewart — a white-haired, ruddy-faced 68-year-old who could be typecast as a headmaster — seemed too focused on his impending overnight journey to South America to reflect very deeply on his long career at the Augustinian Catholic boys school. He leaves the school on solid financial and academic ground, a far cry from conditions when he arrived as a Spanish teacher in 1970.

But maybe Stewart rarely has had occasion to reflect — thanks to what admirers call his trademark humility, and because he was busy: coaching youth football at St. Dorothy’s CYO in Drexel Hill, where he has lived since age 4; managing the Aronimink Swim Club in the summers; raising four children who all grew up to be teachers; and chasing down tickets to the nearest Bruce Springsteen concert whenever he could.

It falls instead upon friends, family, and former students to describe what the man most call "Stew" meant to them.

"The goodness of the person is why so many people love him and respect him," said Fran Dunphy, the current Temple University and former University of Pennsylvania head basketball coach who has known Stewart since growing up in the same neighborhood. "He’s a very patient, very unassuming guy and somebody that you just think very, very highly of. It’s never about him, always about others."

But those who know Stewart best say there could be surprises underneath a modest "Everyman" persona that was a bit like that of his Hollywood namesake. They talk about how he dressed up like Sha-Na-Na’s Bowzer to perform his beloved 1950s music at an annual fund-raising event, or visits alumni on Christmas Eve with a case of beer and a dated "Stew’s Visit" T-shirt for the kids.

Leo Kindon, who has taught under Stewart at Malvern Prep, recalled the good deeds but also Stewart’s weird nicknames for students, including the one he called "Stop Sign" because of the shape of his head.

"I’ve got to be honest — there aren’t many like him," said Paul McShane, a 56-year-old Media insurance broker who has known Stewart practically his entire life — playing youth football for him in Drexel Hill and then carpooling with him to Malvern as a student in the early 1970s. He recalled a few of Stewart’s sturdier traditions — getting up in the dark to run and swim before arriving on campus at 7 a.m., and standing at the end of the school driveway before every holiday to wave goodbye to students, even in the rain or freezing cold.

Stewart was the oldest of nine children who moved to Drexel Hill in 1948 with his father, a liquor salesman by way of the state police and the Coast Guard. He went to Monsignor Bonner High School and La Salle University — studying Spanish because he thought it would help him find work as a teacher — before earning a master’s degree in Spanish from Middlebury College. His lifelong affair with the Malvern Prep campus began the first time he saw it in 1970.

"I fell in love with the grounds," he recalled. "I knew I wanted to be more involved than just a teacher."

He fell for a school that was both in serious physical disrepair — grass unmowed, buildings falling apart — and teetering on the brink financially. There was no endowment and the campus, with only 370 students and an annual tuition of $1,000, was about to switch from a boarding school to a day school.

In 1975, the Augustinians questioned why the Catholic order operated a school on the affluent Main Line when the greatest need seemed to be in the inner city, and the school nearly closed for good as enrollment plunged to 220. But that became a turning point, the beginning of a long rebuilding process under a new lay board of trustees, with Stewart often at the leading edge — serving as athletic director, dean of students, and assistant headmaster before being named head of school in 1990 and president in 2006.

"Every two to three years there’s a new challenge," Stewart said. "You meet that and there’s another." Today, enrollment, including a middle school, is at 629 students — who attend a modern campus dotted with new buildings, such as the state-of-the-art Pellegrini Athletic Complex that opened last year, and the old gym that’s been converted into a cafeteria and student center named the Stewart Center for the outgoing leader.

Malvern Prep now has an $11.5 million endowment, although Stewart still thinks that’s not enough as his successor, Christian M. Talbot, carries out a five-year strategic plan. Talbot, who currently heads the English department of Regis High School, a Catholic prep school in New York City, was chosen after a national search and takes over at Malvern Prep on July 1.

Stewart plans to do some traveling, visiting colleges on Malvern Prep’s behalf and returning next year to teach Spanish.

Though as president he looked to implement a philosophy he called "the Triangle" that involved parents in the teacher-student relationship, others say Stewart also led by example.

"If a kid was making a wise comment, he always blew it off," said McShane, recalling Stewart as a tough but fair coach. "He always saw the good in people, knew how to just let it go. He still does it."

Stewart also involved his family in the school he loved; his first wife, Mary, who died in 2004 of breast cancer, volunteered there while his two sons were students. Matt Stewart, now 35 and a math teacher at Haverford High School, said he was never embarrassed by his father when he attended Malvern Prep in the early 1990s.

"It was the other way around, I embarrassed him," the younger Stewart recalled with a laugh. "My first day of school there, we were at chapel service — and I threw up right while he was doing the reading in Mass. I got real nervous."

It was probably one of the few times in 42 years that "Stew" made anyone nervous. A couple of weeks ago, students surprised Stewart with their own goodbye wave — a concert at which both the men’s chorus and an impromptu band serenaded him with classic Springsteen, concluding with a fitting coda for his tenure, "Glory Days."

When McShane, his former player and student, asked why he’d developed such a passion for the Boss, Stewart replied, "What a hard, dedicated worker he is, a philanthropist, doing things for people, and he does that in a nice quiet way."

Which sounded like the things people say about Stewart — but he would never tell you that.

Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or kboccella@phillynews.com.

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