I was devastated by the loss earlier this year of Dr. Donald Stewart. He and his wife Isabel Carter Stewart have been among my dearest, dearest friends. Donald served as president of my alma mater Spelman College from 1976 to 1986, overlapping with my own tenure on Spelman’s Board of Trustees and then as Board Chair, where he took Spelman to new heights and set it on the path to its standing today as a leading liberal arts and historically Black college ranked #51 on U.S. News and World Report’s list of National Liberal Arts Colleges. I was so proud when Spelman’s robotics team made history in 2005 as the first all-female, all Black undergraduate team to qualify and compete in the International RoboCup four-legged robot soccer competition and several years later tied for first place in a championship in Japan! Spelman is the nation’s oldest historically Black college for women and a shining example of why historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) continue to play a critical role in American education.
Donald, who graduated from Grinnell College, also earned graduate degrees from Yale and Harvard Universities and served as an administrator at the University of Pennsylvania. He understood the importance of solidifying Spelman’s strong academic reputation and nurturing the potential every Spelman student had to offer. When he was chosen as Spelman’s second Black male president following Dr. Albert Manley after a succession of White women leaders, students who had hoped Spelman would choose a Black woman protested by locking in members of the Board of Trustees, tying the door to our board room shut for 26 hours. But in his first address Donald promised he would never let “male ego” get in the way of being the leader Spelman’s students needed.
Under his leadership the college’s commitment to STEM skyrocketed, including establishment of the chemistry and computer science departments and a computer literacy requirement, setting the stage for Spelman students’ excellence today. He also established the school’s honors program and the Women’s Research and Resource Center—the first of its kind for a Black college—and greatly expanded Spelman’s fundraising and endowment to help ensure its success for the future. And he responded to our Board decision and student and alumnae insistence that Spelman fully divest from apartheid South Africa.
Throughout Donald’s tenure at Spelman his beautiful and accomplished wife Isabel Carter Stewart was an invaluable copartner. I am always so happy to say I played matchmaker between them—I have never had a divorce in all of my matchmaking history and they were one of my most successful pairs! I was a bridesmaid at their beautiful wedding and was thrilled to see them create such a strong legacy together at Spelman. They and their young sons Jay and Carter brought new youthful energy to Spelman’s campus after Dr. Manley’s 23 years as president and their family’s involvement in Atlanta life brought great visibility to the college throughout the city. Carter and my oldest son Joshua have been close friends since childhood and I am so grateful they are now carrying on family friendships and traditions with their children.
Spelman’s Donald and Isabel Stewart Living-Learning Center was dedicated during Donald’s last year as Spelman’s president and after Spelman both Donald and Isabel continued careers of service. Donald served as president of the College Board, senior program officer at the Carnegie Corporation, and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust. He was also a director of the New York Times Company and served on a number of boards. Isabel served as director of the Global Fund for Children, national executive director of Girls, Inc., and executive director of the Chicago Foundation for Women and has also served and worked on many boards, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Public/Private Ventures, and NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. Donald said once about their shared commitment to philanthropic and non-profit organizations: “Isabel and I have—throughout our professional lives—been in non-profit service, and we believe in giving. We believe that we lift as we climb and that without philanthropy, without the help of the non-profit world, many organizations and people will not have their needs met.”
Donald and Isabel led and lifted many others along the way. I am profoundly grateful for our many years of friendship and the lasting legacy he left at Spelman. He is deeply missed.
Marian Wright Edelman is President Emeritus of the Children's Defense Fund.