Friday, July 19, 2024

Oysters & Champagne

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The “Grandman” Celebrates Career, Family and Jazz with A Toast

By Devan Stuart Lesley | Photography by Renee Parenteau 

Mark Twain once quipped, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” At age 75, Michael Stewart, globetrotting, water-sporting, always wisecracking and working well past the average U.S. retirement age of 64, is a testament to that particular credo.

Whether strolling around town, at the beach or on vacation he is rarely seen without a finely tailored hat and meticulously coordinated scarf. His signature look exudes an air of sophistication reflecting his refined taste and attention to detail.

“I’m blessed with good health, great friends and I still love my job,” says Stewart, who has been the Director of External Affairs for the Jacksonville Aviation Authority since 2004. A lifelong Jaxon, save for his time at Howard University where he earned a civil engineering degree and three years at Philadelphia’s Gulf Oil working in designing and constructing refineries in the early 1970s, Stewart is a venerated area business leader with a deep love for his hometown.

“Family, the beaches, the weather and now, aviation such that you can fly directly to and return from just about anywhere quickly,” says Stewart, always ready with a shameless plug. “Ninety-eight percent of our air traffic starts here and returns here. I love being able to travel anywhere, then come back to my family and friends. I still hang out with friends from elementary school.”

Following his stint in Philadelphia, Stewart returned to Jacksonville to be with family after his father passed away in the early 1970s. He worked with Offshore Power Systems, which built floating nuclear generating plants.

“It was controversial, and some people still scoff at it,” he said. “But I loved working with the architects and engineers.”

In 1977, he joined a telephone company managing building design and construction of facilities built to implement transition from mechanical to electronic switches. By 1992, he caught the attention of leadership at BellSouth, a major player in telecommunications at that time.

Savoring ageless tastes and timeless jazz tunes at the North Seas Jazz Festival in Amsterdam is an annual tradition with best friend Ian Barrow.

“They asked me to consider working in their external affairs, media and governmental relations. It took me some time to make that decision,” he recalls. “But I excelled, and I loved it. I didn’t think I would at first, but it gave me the opportunity to draw on my technical background and build on my media experience.”

In 2004, another opportunity availed itself with the Jacksonville Aviation Authority, at the time a newly formed agency borne of JaxPort’s splitting of its seaport and airport agencies.

At 75 years young, Stewart stills dives into life’s adventures in the tranquil waters of Bonaire.

“We’ve gone through several more restructurings over nearly 20 years, but I have enjoyed it so much, I’ve decided to hang around.”

Life on the water is another factor that keeps Stewart here on the First Coast. His home sits on the edge of the Trout River and even Hurricane Irma couldn’t chase him away. Despite massive flooding that forced him to pull up the floors and strip the walls from top to bottom, he rebuilt and regularly entertains at home, often serving up his favorite – oysters on the half-shell and champagne.

He’s also a regular at the beaches both here in Northeast Florida and abroad. At least twice a year, he and family spend a week or two on the Caribbean island of Bonaire, swimming and snorkeling in the blue waters. To enjoy his love of jazz music, he travels to the Netherlands each year for the North Seas Jazz Festival with lifelong best friend Ian Barrow, who lives in Atlanta and still works as a national sales agent for a construction materials distributor at 76.

A point of pride for Stewart is a family history that runs deep in Northeast Florida. Grandfather, Ralph Burge Stewart, Jr. was the first actuary of the Afro American Life Insurance Company, founded in 1901 by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida’s first black millionaire. The company was among the nation’s first to specialize in helping black citizens obtain life insurance and mortgages and was responsible for the creation of Nassau County’s American Beach, developed during the Jim Crow era when African Americans were denied access to beaches, pools and other public amenities. Among the original homes still standing is one that belonged to Stewart’s grandmother, Florida C. Dwight.

The Stewart family’s best days are spent along the shores and in the sand at American Beach.

“Growing up, I didn’t really understand how historic a place it was. That understanding didn’t come until desegregation happened in the 1960s and I heard people talking about being able to go places we couldn’t before,” Stewart recalled. “Back then, it was a rite of passage for each of us kids and grandkids to have a key to the beach house when we graduated high school. Today, though, I truly appreciate the historic significance and how fortunate we were. Part of that enclave still exists and now, I get to see my own grandkids enjoy American Beach and our piece of the Atlantic Ocean. As long as I breathe, I will never sell that house.”

The Florida C. Dwight Memorial Playground in Jacksonville’s La Villa section is named for Dwight, who pioneered organized recreation for the city’s African American community from 1918 until her retirement in 1950. Husband David H. Dwight, Sr. was the first African American to receive the Boy Scouts of America’s highest honor, the Silver Beaver Award, and he successfully lobbied for the rights of African American youth to join the organization and wear the official uniform.

Stewart’s family includes late brother, Dennis, aka “Mr. Natural”, a beloved local chef and television personality who died of colon cancer in 2019.

“Dennis always said he got his skill and love of cooking from our grandmothers,” Stewart says. “We went to Howard together and there was always something smelling good in our student apartment kitchen.”

Stewart’s own family includes two sons and a daughter with former wife Lydia Stewart, and five grandchildren, who affectionately dubbed him “Grandman”.

“Family is everything to me and I am immensely proud of my family’s history here,” he says.

Photos provided special to First Coast Senior Living.

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