By Todd Cohen
[Note: This was written for Triangle Community Foundation.]
DURHAM, N.C. — Community service is built into Jim Stewart’s DNA.
His mother’s uncle, C.C. Spaulding, was an early executive of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, which became the largest black-owned business in the U.S. and, with Mechanics and Farmers Bank, and Mutual Savings and Loan, served as the core of the Parrish Street section of Durham that was known as “Black Wall Street.”
His father, John S. “Shag” Stewart, was president of Mutual Savings and Loan, and served on the Durham City Council from 1954 to 1971, and as mayor pro-tem in 1970-71, during critical years of the Civil Rights Movement.
“I think it’s a moral duty of everyone to try to help improve the lives of everyone, particularly those who have less than we do,” says Stewart, owner of Stewart Commercial Real Estate, board chair of Mechanics and Farmers Bank, and incoming board chair for Triangle Community Foundation.
Stewart’s father and mother were deeply involved in business, entrepreneurship and real estate, and “those were the skills that we learned,” he says.
“He and my mother always preached, ‘Save your money, savings is the basis of anybody’s life,'” says Stewart. “As you grow in business, their concern was always that everyone had decent housing, access to health care, and education. The more successful you are, the more you need to give back and spend time, money and effort helping the community.”
His parents taught him about the importance of education, about business and about giving back.
His mother, Otelia Spaulding Stewart, a graduate of North Carolina College — now North Carolina Central University — was a pianist who encouraged him to take piano lessons when he attended C.C. Spaulding Elementary School, which was named for his great uncle.
“I quit early and wish I had stuck with it,” he says, although he did play alto saxophone in the band and marching band at Whitted Junior High School before attending Hillside High School.
As a child, he sometimes accompanied his father to work. And at age 11, he started cutting grass at his father’s housing projects for $1 an hour.
Years later, when his father was the volunteer chief fundraiser for Lincoln Community Health Center — a primary care facility that was built on the site of the former Lincoln Hospital, the hospital for African Americans where Jim Stewart was born — “he asked me for money,” Stewart says.
He also remembers a key role his father played in the startup of Triangle Community Foundation.
Shag Stewart introduced Shannon St. John, founding executive director of Triangle Community Foundation, to potential donors, “trying to raise money to get the foundation started,” Stewart says. “I knew how passionate he was about it. It’s in my genes.”
College and career
Stewart, 66, wanted to be a helicopter pilot when he grew up.
“I didn’t know about war and Vietnam,” he says. “I just liked mechanical things.”
He received a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where he also completed the ROTC program, then got a job as a junior engineer at IBM in Research Triangle Park before entering the U.S. Army.
He spent a year at Fort Eustis in Virginia, teaching data processing, then spent three years in Heidelberg, Germany, working as a plans officer, handling budgeting, correspondence and acquisition of supplies. He completed his four-year tour in 1975 as a first lieutenant.
After mustering out of the Army, Stewart returned to IBM, and in 1982 moved to the marketing division as a systems engineer working to help install and maintain software systems for big customers like banks and insurance companies.
He left IBM in 1997, when he was a senior market support representative providing support for a network management tool, to found Stewart Commercial Real Estate, which works as a brokerage and consultant for commercial real estate, mainly in Durham.
Stewart, who received an MBA from N.C. State in 2009, also runs two other family businesses. They include Clearview Housing Corp., a commercial real estate holding company his father founded in 1951 to provide housing to low-income people, and Majaja Inc., a real estate holding company founded in the 1970s that takes its name from the first two letters of the first names of Stewart and his sisters Jan and Marie, who died in 2011.
Life in the Triangle
Growing up and spending most of his life in Durham has enriched Stewart’s life with longstanding relationships he values, and with the heritage of a city built on leading institutions and industries in diverse fields, including higher education, financial services, tobacco and health care, he says.
Like other communities in the Triangle, he says, Durham has experienced significant growth powered by the region’s strong mix of universities, business and research.
But growth and the affluence it has helped fuel also have generated big challenges like traffic and have masked nagging problems tied to poverty, Stewart says.
“One of the challenges we have is to plan this out,” he says. “We’re talking about light rail, which I think would help avoid some of the problems that [other] large areas already are seeing.”
While “sometimes politically it’s difficult to channel resources where they can do the most good,” he says, the Triangle needs to continue to develop its infrastructure to keep pace with its growth.
Stewart says he learned the importance of hard work, giving back and community service from his parents.
His father ran for the seat on the Durham City Council that represented the black community because “the community needed a business leader to take over that seat after R.N. Harris stepped down,” he says.
And while he admired and learned from his father’s “outgoing style and his ability to work with people,” particularly his effort to work with whites to find peaceful solutions to integrate society during the turbulent era of the early 1960s, he says, he never has wanted to pursue politics himself.
“I keep up with it,” he says. “I contribute to it. I get involved. But I’ve never had the itch to run for anything.”
Stewart is married to Frances Dyer, a retired lawyer who worked mainly in the area of estates and real estate. Their son, Justin, is a biomedical engineer who lives in Tampa, Fla., with his wife and two children, ages 18 and 16.
Stewart, who enjoys spending summers and holidays at a home his family owns at North Topsail Beach, says he has little spare time for hobbies.
“What I do for fun is when I take time out and create,” he says. “When I go to the beach, I’m working on something.”
He says he does take time for sports — he is a big N.C. State Wolfpack fan — and as he and his wife “get to the fourth quarter of our lives, we’re starting to travel more.”
A big part of his life is his role as board chair at Mechanics and Farmers Bank, which was a cornerstone of Black Wall Street and has been in existence for 108 years.
“We continue to grow and thrive,” he says.
A member of White Rock Baptist Church, Stewart says what inspires him most is his faith.
A member of the board of visitors at N.C. State and its Chancellor’s African American Advisory Council, Stewart created the James A. Stewart Scholarship Endowment Fund at the university to support “kids who are in need and are from underserved populations.”
Higher education is critical because it is “a ticket to success,” he says, but he also has learned about the importance of early education from his work on the board of the John Avery Boys & Girls Club in Durham.
“The kids we serve don’t have a lot of opportunity,” he says. “We help to support them in their education, helping with homework and tutoring — priority one after they get there after school and get a hot meal. It’s important. They may not get it otherwise.”
The Club also gives kids experiences, such as field trips to museums and college campuses, that they otherwise might not have, he says.
At Triangle Community Foundation, Stewart and his wife created the James A. Stewart and Frances Dyer Fund, a donor advised fund that has supported scholarships, the Foundation’s Send a Kid to Camp program, and religious institutions, among other causes.
“What inspires me,” he says, “is going to events and hearing stories about where people have been helped so much by philanthropy and what we do with the Foundation and the Boys & Girls Club.”