Alaska remembers founding father Tom Stewart

Man helped plot state's constitution

Posted: Sunday, December 16, 2007

Tom Stewart was one of Alaska's founding fathers, a judge, a lawmaker, a singer, a skier, a war hero, a storyteller and a parent.

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His death on Wednesday night in Juneau, the city he called home almost his entire life, left family and admirers alike in mourning.

Stewart, who would have turned 89 on New Year's Day, was the secretary of the Alaska Constitutional Convention, the man who plotted a road map for a document that has been lauded over the decades.

"He's kind of like Alaska's Ben Franklin," said state Supreme Court Justice Bud Carpeneti of Juneau, who took Stewart's Superior Court seat in 1981 when Stewart retired. "He was there at the founding of the state and played a very important part in it."

Stewart served in the territorial House of Representatives, was a senator in the first State of Alaska legislative session and spent 15 years as a Superior Court judge.

It was Stewart who spearheaded legislation that created a constitutional convention in the years leading to statehood. It was Stewart who steered the convention out of Juneau and onto the University of Alaska campus in Fairbanks. It was Stewart who pushed for the elected delegates to be nonpartisan.

And it was Stewart who, by choosing to be an organizer instead of running for a delegate spot, traveled the country on his own dime in the months before the convention, meeting with political scientists and constitutional experts and looking for advice on how to craft Alaska's Constitution.

"He was part of a great era where individual contributions could be made without a lot of ballyhoo of having to be numero uno," said Vic Fischer of Anchorage, one of four surviving convention delegates.

"He studied the issues in advance and learned about constitution writing, so that when we got there, we were prepared to get to work. In a way, it was a great sacrifice, because the far more prestigious thing would have been to be a delegate. But Tom decided to do the dog work and manage the preparation."

State Supreme Court Justice Warren Matthews likened Stewart's role at the convention to what an Internet content provider does today.

"That's his legacy, and it's an important one," he said.

His vision left Alaska with a constitution praised by scholars, especially its judiciary article, which calls for judges to be appointed based on merit but retained based on voter preferences. The resulting system, Matthews said, "is designed to preserve both judicial independence and accountability."

Stewart spent 15 years as a Superior Court judge in Juneau, where Carpeneti sometimes tried cases in his courtroom.

"He was the best trial judge I ever appeared in front of," Carpeneti said. "He was always prepared and he was unfailingly polite and courteous. He made sure everyone had their chance to be heard."

Even after retirement, Stewart continued his involvement in the judicial system. He worked as a settlement judge, advised governors and sat on numerous committees.

Just last month, while Stewart was recovering from surgery in Juneau, eight justices from Southeast Alaska gathered at the Wildflower Court rehabilitation center so Stewart could swear in Philip Pallenberg to the Superior Court, replacing retired Larry Weeks.

"We all expected he would be out in a couple of weeks," Carpeneti said.

Stewart developed pneumonia after surgery and died Wednesday night at Bartlett Regional Hospital. All six of his surviving children were there, son Steve Stewart said.

"He had been healthy until recently," Stewart said.

Just a couple of years ago, when he was 85, Tom Stewart climbed the highest peak on Douglas Island -- Mount Ben Stewart, named for his dad, who came to Juneau almost a century ago and was one of the region's first mining engineers.

He was proud of his family's Juneau roots, friends said. The city was his home for all but about five years spent as a lawyer in Anchorage and about a dozen years spent in college and the military.

The house he came home to as a newborn in 1919 was the house he lived in until his death, Steve Stewart said.

He was awarded bronze and silver stars for valor during World War II, during which his skills as a skier landed him in the Army's 10th Mountain Division. Decades later he was still skiing and climbing.

"He went to Seward in the 1950s and bought a used rope tow from the Army for $50, and that was (Juneau's) first rope tow," Steve Stewart said.

Late in the '50s, Stewart decided to take piano lessons. He didn't learn much, Steve said, but the lessons weren't wasted -- he married his teacher. For decades, Jane Stewart was a leader of Juneau's art scene, sometimes coaxing her husband on stage.

"I remember more than one opera where Tom sang some tenor or bass role," Carpeneti said. "He was game for anything."

He recited long narrative poems from memory and was a natural storyteller, Carpeneti said.

"I kick myself for not recording everything the man ever said to me," he said. "He had such an amazing life. It's hard to express in five minutes. You need a book."

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