A History of Higher Learning

Written by: 
Erin Cristales
The Stewart family portrait at UNT
From left, Krisanne Stewart, Bryan Stewart ('86 M.S., '92 Ph.D.), James Stewart ('54, '59 M.A., '70 Ph.D.), Blake Stewart ('17, '18 M.S.) and Colleen Stewart at Blake's graduation in December 2018, where he received his master's degree in mechanical engineering. (Photo by Michael Clements)

Sprinkled throughout James Stewart's ('54, '59 M.A., '70 Ph.D.) home office are photos and keepsakes that tell the tale of his storied career in higher education. There are images from the groundbreaking of Tyler State College -- now known as the University of Texas at Tyler -- where, in 1971, Stewart was appointed the institution's first president.

On his desk are seals from the universities he's served -- not just UT-Tyler, but also UNT, where in the 1960s he worked as assistant to Graduate School Dean Robert Toulouse and President C.C. Nolen. On the bookshelf lining the back wall, a bronze eagle keeps watch.

But there's a newer memento, displayed in a silver frame, that represents his greatest legacy: a photo of Stewart, his son Bryan ('86 M.S., '92 Ph.D.) and his grandson Blake ('17, '18 M.S.) at Blake's graduation ceremony in December. The youngest Stewart earned his master's in mechanical engineering at UNT -- after earning two bachelor's degrees here in math and engineering -- and is currently enrolled in the Ph.D. program.

"I never pressured Bryan or Blake to go to UNT -- they came to that decision themselves," says Stewart, a government major whose aunts and uncle received their teaching degrees from North Texas State Teachers College. "North Texas proved to be an outstanding institution when I was there and is even more so now."

After earning his master's in 1959, Stewart went to work for Toulouse. Though he ultimately left for East Texas, where he spent more than a decade as Tyler's top administrator, UNT remained close to his heart. Soon enough, his son found his way to the university as well.

"I fell in love with the math department and the campus," says Bryan, who received his bachelor's degree at Tarleton before accepting a teaching fellowship at UNT. "I still remember the smell of popcorn in the Union building and listening to music in the One O'Clock Lounge. Denton felt like a town with a lot of opportunity."

In 1992, Bryan went on to receive his Ph.D. in higher education. He's spent his entire career in higher ed, serving as dean of math and science and vice president for academic affairs at Tarrant County College, and now as president of Miami Dade College's medical campus.

As he watched his son accept his master's degree in December, Bryan couldn't help but swell with pride. The legacy was about more than attending UNT -- it was about a deeply embedded affinity for learning.

"My son has always loved school, maybe more than any of us," he says. "UNT has done an amazing job of giving him opportunities to bloom."

In January, Blake began his studies in UNT's engineering Ph.D. program. He says he's happy to continue the legacy but never felt like it was an obligation.

"They just led by example, and I wanted to join them," he says. "It's amazing to have two people in your corner who have successfully done this -- it makes it feel attainable."

And Stewart knows just how his grandson feels. Back when he was pursuing his Ph.D., it was colleagues like Toulouse who made him believe anything was achievable. Now he's grateful to pay that sentiment forward.

"I used to thank Bob Toulouse for everything he made possible for me and my family," Stewart says. "And you know what his answer always was? 'I didn't do enough.' That's the philosophy of a true educator and a great institution."

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