Johnton County Commissioner Wade Stewart — who died Monday of an apparent heart attack — wore many hats throughout his life. He was a politician, a businessman and father. But his brother Wayne thinks that his time in the U.S. Army, including a year of combat duty in Vietnam, was what defined him.
“I could tell that had influenced his outlook on life,” Wayne said. “He often told me that a business should be run like the military. And he often said he wished he had spent more time in the military.”
Although he served on the Board of Commissioners during an unprecedented population boom and then a recession, Stewart might be remembered most for his advocacy on behalf of other veterans. Most notably, he started the county’s Veterans Services Advisory Committee, which advises county government on veterans’ issues.
“He was a veteran, and he felt like the county needed a group to make sure we were reaching the veterans in the county,” said fellow commissioner Tony Braswell, who also served in Vietnam.
But there was more to Stewart than his military service. He grew up on a farm near Four Oaks but eventually joined the family sawmill business. After he returned from Vietnam in 1969, Stewart began working with his brother Wayne at the lumber mills that shaped and defined the Stewart family for four generations.
“Sawmill work is tough work,” Wayne said. “You get a good work ethic if you do that generation after generation.”
Stewart died of an apparent heart attack early Monday morning, according to his oldest son, Chad. Stewart had a history of heart problems that forced him to get coronary stents five years ago.
Earlier this month, he had back surgery at WakeMed in Raleigh. Doctors advised him to go off his blood-thinning medication. Stewart was concerned, Chad said, but agreed to it.
He suffered a heart attack two days after the procedure, prompting another stay in the hospital. He was released a few days later, and family members said he seemed fine.
On Monday morning, Stewart’s wife Jenny woke up to find he had died in his sleep. Chad said his father had been worried about possible complications from the surgery, but the family is satisfied with the quality of his care.
“Everybody seems to be satisfied,” Chad said. “I think everyone did everything they could do.”
‘A true patriot’
Colleagues, friends and family members remember Stewart as passionate and intense but personable. Four Oaks Mayor Linwood Parker, one of Stewart’s closest friends, described him as a natural leader.
“People enjoyed following him and working with him,” Parker said.
Braswell said he sometimes disagreed with Stewart, especially over special-use zoning cases. Those are typically cases where a business wants to operate in a mostly residential or agricultural area.
Braswell said he usually erred on the side of protecting residents from noise and traffic by pushing strict limits on business hours. Stewart, the businessman, usually sided with business owners.
“He believed as a businessman they should be able to work all they want to,” Braswell said. “There was no animosity; it was just the fact that he saw things one way. and I saw things another.”
Smithfield Mayor Daniel Evans said he worked with Stewart on many projects, including the merging of Smithfield’s EMS department with the county’s. Stewart wasn’t afraid to lock horns when he needed to, Evans said.
“Not everyone agreed with him, but that was OK with Wade,” Evans said.
Both Braswell and Evans said Stewart was willing to compromise when needed. And he always kept professional disagreements separate from personal relationships.
Wayne Stewart, who is four years younger than his brother, had a more intimate look at these qualities while they were growing up. He remembers watching Wade back down the older brother of a student Wayne had been fighting.
“He probably saved me from a whipping right there because I was in elementary school and that kid was in high school,” Wayne said. “Wade would always be that way — he’d always help anyone in a difficult position.”
It was this fierce loyalty and dedication that people remember most about Stewart. He showed those qualities in all aspects of his life, friends and family said.
“He loved this county, loved this state, loved this country,” Evans said. “He was a true patriot.”