BROWNWOOD – February 18, 2015 – Bobbie Jo Stewart, who recently retired from Howard Payne University’s Walker Memorial Library, spent 11 years in her most recent role at HPU, but her involvement with the university dates back much farther than that.
“I was 5 when I started preschool at Howard Payne,” Stewart says. “It was on the bottom floor of what is now the Wellness Center.”
The program, no longer in operation, was begun in the late 1940s by Nila Wright, wife of then-football coach Felton “Pooch” Wright, for children whose birthdays fell outside the cutoff period for public school.
“The options were to either stay out of school for another year or pay tuition at Howard Payne like a regular student,” Stewart says.
At age 11, she also began taking piano lessons at Howard Payne, which she continued until she graduated from college. Just three days after her high school graduation in 1961, Stewart sat in her first class, Music Appreciation, as a Howard Payne College freshman.
“I thought that I had finally arrived because I was a student in a real college class at Howard Payne,” she says. “It felt special to me even though I had technically been considered a student for a number of years.”
She fondly remembers her time as a student at Howard Payne, receiving instruction from such revered HPU faculty members as the late Dr. George Baker, then head of the music department, and the late Dr. Cleo McChristy, then head of the English department.
“One interesting set of circumstances that I had not considered when I became a freshman at Howard Payne was that many of my professors had also taught my parents,” Stewart says. “I vividly remember the first classroom experience I had with Dr. McChristy. She called roll and when she came to my name she stopped and said, ‘Well, Miss Sims, are you going to be as smart as your parents were?’ Both my parents had been honor students, so I was constantly being compared. Consequently, I had to be on my toes all the time.”
Stewart completed her five-year Bachelor of Music Education degree in less than four years, graduating in August 1964. In the 1990s, she returned to HPU as an adjunct instructor in the music department.
“I taught Class Piano I and II as well as private piano lessons,” she says. “I also taught later in the Pre-College Music program.”
Stewart has also taught private piano lessons and been involved in church music in the roles of pianist, organist or choir director for more than 40 years.
She was sidelined for a lengthy period of time following emergency open-heart surgery in December 1993. When her health permitted, she was eager to be a Howard Payne employee once again. She came back to HPU as a custodian for a few weeks prior to beginning her most recent role as circulation and music library supervisor in 2003.
The thought of retirement often brings to mind images of rest and relaxation, but Stewart has different plans for her newfound time.
“Oh, there won’t be any ‘taking it easy and letting the grass grow under my feet’,” she says, laughing.
Chief among her priorities is finally having the opportunity to begin “married life” with her husband of almost two years, retired school administrator Wayne Stewart.
“Within a few weeks after we were married, Wayne became seriously ill,” she says. “Shortly after he began to get better, I became ill with cancer.”
Successive health issues, combined with the tragic death of their granddaughter, two-year-old Parker in August 2014, has taken a great toll on the newlyweds. Their faith in God, however, has carried them through their various challenges.
“These difficult times have made us more aware of God’s grace and handiwork,” Stewart says. “One truly can find something beautiful in every situation, no matter how dire. Even though we plan to be busy in our retirement, it will afford us the time to reflect on the many blessings God has given us and ‘be there’ for others going through tragic circumstances.”
Nancy Anderson, who retired as HPU’s dean of libraries in 2014, says Stewart’s rapport with students was her greatest strength as a university employee.
“Bobbie Jo was always smiling and greeted each person who came into the library,” says Anderson. “Not just with a casual ‘good morning,’ but with a genuine greeting that meant something.”
Stewart says she wishes she could continue that interaction with students.
“I told President (Dr. Bill) Ellis that I wish I could recruit from home,” she says. “My blood truly is ‘blue ’n gold.’”
According to Dr. Ellis, that level of commitment among HPU’s faculty and staff is what makes HPU special.
“It is an honor getting to work with people like Bobbie Jo who care deeply about the success of our students,” he says. “We will miss seeing her smiling face and wish her all the best in her retirement.”
Stewart feels HPU has something that many larger universities do not.
“Not only is Howard Payne an institution of higher learning, but it also goes way beyond that,” she says. “Everyone on this campus is someone truly special – it feels like one big, closely-knit family.”
Photo cutline: Bobbie Jo Stewart recently retired from her role as circulation and music library supervisor at Howard Payne University.