Obituary: Glenn Alexander Stewart / Physicist, founder and dean of Pitt Honors College

Jan. 14, 1941 - April 7, 2010


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A physicist who was a humanist at heart and an administrator whose door was always open, Glenn Alexander "Alec" Stewart for years lured top students to the University of Pittsburgh, nurturing their interests and launching them to further success.

The founding dean of Pitt's University Honors College, Dr. Stewart helped produce streams of award-winning graduates, including six Rhodes scholars since 1983. Students said he was constantly approachable, generous with his time and willing to talk about anything.

Dr. Stewart, of Churchill, died Wednesday after a long illness. He was 69.

Colleagues, students and family said he was a warm man with a searching intellect and a genuine interest in people, whatever their walk of life.

He kept a "Dean's Scrapbook" of sundry clippings meant to stir thought and debate. He developed a summer program for students of all disciplines to pursue independent projects while still sharing ideas.

And while he was influential in helping the university's graduates to win multiple awards, those achievements were simply an outgrowth of his values, said Edward McCord, director of programming and special projects at the Honors College.

"Learning to appreciate the rewards of life above the neck," Dr. Stewart called it, said Dr. McCord.

Born in 1941, Dr. Stewart graduated from high school in Ellensburg, Wash. before attending Amherst College, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1962.

That same year, he married his high school sweetheart, Carolyn.

Dr. McCord said that when the two met, Dr. Stewart had a buggy and Mrs. Stewart had a horse, literally.

"When they realized that, they put the two together," he said.

In 1969, Dr. Stewart earned his Ph.D. in solid state physics at the University of Washington. He came to Pitt as an assistant professor of physics in 1972.

In 1977, he became the first head of the college's University Honors Program, which later became the Honors College. He forged the new program's identity, creating a place that had high standards but was not exclusive, colleagues said.

Today, the Honors College reaches about 1,000 students each year through about 80 courses, said Pitt spokesman John Harvith.

For countless high school students, a meeting with Dr. Stewart was the turning point in their college decision, said Daniel Richey, who graduated from Pitt in 2006.

"He was instrumental in my coming to Pittsburgh," said Eleanor Ott, a Rhodes and Truman scholar who graduated from Pitt in 2009.

Despite his duties as dean, Dr. Stewart remained a professor of physics.

"He was the only dean at the university who had a regular teaching load, and that was as his own insistence," said Nathan Hilberg, director of academic affairs at the Honors College. "He just loved being in the classroom."

Ben Mericli, who graduated from Pitt in 2009, compared Dr. Stewart's physics class to a class in language immersion, so deep was its intensity.

Dr. Stewart amassed a devoted student following during his years at the helm of the Honors College.

"He was unrelenting in his efforts to use the power of education to maximize student growth," Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg wrote in an e-mail to the Post-Gazette.

Dr. McCord said Dr. Stewart worked "a kind of magic" on students.

"He gave you the impression that he had all the time in the world for you," said Mr. Richey.

Karen Billingsley, Dr. Stewart's assistant, said he was famous for his open-door policy.

"A student who walked in for any reason whatsoever normally took precedence over anything else that was happening that day," she said.

Pitt Provost James Maher recalled that during meetings with students, Dr. Stewart often managed to pull the perfect book off his shelf.

"Remarkably often, this kid would tell you, 'That book made a real difference in my life,' " said Dr. Maher.

Despite his devotion to the life of the mind, Dr. Stewart was an avid outdoorsman, said his son, Colin Stewart, of New York. Until just a few years ago, he rode his bike to work daily.

In addition to his son, Dr. Stewart is survived by his wife, Carolyn Stewart, of Churchill; his daughter Kirsten Stewart, of San Francisco; and three grandchildren.

Visitation will be held from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Sunday at John A. Freyvogel Funeral Home, Shadyside.

The university will hold a service Monday at 2 p.m. in the campus's Heinz Memorial Chapel, followed by a reception.


Vivian Nereim: vnereim@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1413.


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