Byrd Stewart loves to reminisce about his childhood in Newell, Ala.; his service in the U.S. Army; his time as a college student; and his marriage that has spanned 67 years. With 100 years of memories, he has a lot to talk about.
Stewart celebrates his 100th birthday Nov. 20 with a community birthday party at the Morrison’s Crossroads Volunteer Fire Department in Randolph County. He is the oldest living graduate from the Alabama School of Trades (now Gadsden State Community College East Broad Street Campus) and speaks fondly of his time at the college.
“I vividly remember my time at Gadsden State,” he said. “It was a privilege for me to attend college. My training helped me make a good living to raise my family. I’m always appreciative of my time there.”
Stewart’s life story begins in the small community of Newell, where hewas the fifth of 12 children. He attended school until complications from the mumps forced him to leave in the 10th grade. In 1934, he enrolled in the Alabama School of Trades, which was founded in 1925 and is the oldest technical college in the Southeast. Attending the Etowah County school, required him to hitchhike from Randolph County to Gadsden.
“I couldn’t afford a bus ticket so I’d get on the road and thumb a ride,” he said. “I had an Alabama School of Trades sticker on my bag so people figured I wasn’t dangerous if I was in school. So many people were willing to help get me to school. Sometimes I’d get there with one ride but sometimes it took several rides in several cars to get there. Most
times, I’d beat the bus to Gadsden.”
While at the Alabama School of Trades, Stewart worked campus jobs in
exchange for tuition and board. “People had to work their way through college because no one had extra money to pay for schooling,” he said.
He shoveled coal into the boilers at the administration building. he milked cows at the dairy farm. He plowed fields at the college-owned farm just south of Glencoe.
“We grew corn, sweet potatoes; lots of vegetables,” he said. “We’d bring back the food to the college and they’d use it in the cafeteria to feed all of us students.
“Not getting sleep was a problem. I’d plow at night and take classes early in the morning and sleep during the afternoon. I was tired but I had to do what I could to get an education.”
Stewart also bartered his way through college. “The college would take veggies and other items from students in exchange for tuition,” he said. “I borrowed a van once to carry a load of syrup from Newell to Gadsden. It was made in my Daddy’s syrup mill. The instructors and students loved it.”
During his time at Alabama School of Trades, he vividly remembers an instructor that made an impression on him – Doc Hughes.
“He taught me auto mechanics,” Stewart said. “He made learning interesting. I also learned how to weld, which ended up being a veryimportant trade for me.”
After graduation, Stewart worked as a mechanic at a Ford dealership in Wedowee. On June 18, 1941, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and worked as an automobile mechanic with the 6th Calvary Reconnaissance Squadron. He served in northern France, central Europe, Germany and Ardennes Rhineland.
“I did a lot of welding and maintenance on Army trucks,” he said. “I really believe the skills I learned at Gadsden State somewhat saved my life. I could keep the trucks going in the cold weather so I was protected. They kept me in safer areas throughout Europe because I could work on the trucks. It kept me off the frontlines.”
After Stewart served four years, four months and 12 days in the military, he moved back to Randolph County and opened his own garage.
“I rented a shop and ran it myself,” he said. “I worked on all kinds of cars. I worked on county vehicles; the ones they used to work on the roads and highways.”
In 1948, he continued utilizing his Alabama School of Trades training and was hired as a welder at Anniston Army Depot, where he had a 25-year career.
“I also worked as a registered Black Angus cattle farmer most of my adult life,” he said. “I was always busy.”
“I saw this good looking girl that I wanted to get to know better,” he said. “I remembered seeing her once when I was hitchhiking to Gadsden State. I started boarding with her family and got her as a girlfriend in the process.”
On his 33rd birthday in 1948, Stewart married Fairy Morrison. She ran the corner store for almost 60 years while he worked at the Anniston Army Depot. They have two daughters, Peggy Bullard and Polly Goodwin. They have three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. The couple is celebrating their 67th anniversary during the celebration at
Morrison’s Crossroads Volunteer Fire Department, an organization that was founded by Stewart 50 years ago and where he served as the department’s first chief. He was also instrumental in organizing the Randolph County Merchants and Citizens Association. And, for well over five decades, he served as a deacon at Union Baptist Church.
“For many years, Daddy was always the first one at the church to open the door,” said his daughter, Polly. “On Saturdays, he would drive his tractor to the church to cut the grass. He also made crosses for all of the unmarked graves at the church cemetery.”
Polly said being raised by Byrd and Fairy was a joy.
“We had a very wholesome living,” she said. “It was always very easy-going. Momma was always at the store. Daddy worked. We traveled to 4-H Cattle Shows. My Daddy always picked out the best heifers. We had a wonderful childhood.”
Now, Polly’s parents spend their days in side-by-side recliners that face toward a picture window in their ranch-style house in Morrison’s Crossroads. They have a perfect view of the crossroads, the volunteer fire department, the corner store and Fairy’s family’s old house. They have around-the-clock caregivers and enjoy their daily visits from their
granddaughter, Brandy, and great-grandson, Sam.
“It’s been a good life,” Stewart said. “I have lots to say about how great things have turned out. I’m blessed.”
BYRD STEWART GOES THROUGH A BAG OF GADSDEN STATE COMMUNITY COLLEGE MEMORABILIA THAT WAS SENT TO HIM BY DR. MARTHA LAVENDER, COLLEGE PRESIDENT, AND TIM GREEN, DEAN OF TECHNICAL PROGRAMS.