Collected Condolences: the John L. Stewart Memorial Scrapbook

Amongst the many sheets of correspondence, lecture notes and legal documents that make up the John Lammey Stewart papers is a hefty scrapbook created after Stewart’s death in 1927 and probably arranged by his widow, Mary. John Stewart was an educator whose professional career culminated in being appointed President of Lehigh University before serving as a Pennsylvania Public Service Commissioner and who, as this scrapbook can attest, was beloved to his wife and many friends. Though its pages are yellowed and worn, this memorialization to Stewart was created with great care: about two dozen sympathetic telegrams and 180 letters of condolence addressed to Mrs. Stewart were sorted, folded, and pasted onto eighteen large pieces of card stock. Certain pages, packed with everything from succinct telegrams (“Profound Sympathy”) to circuitous handwritten notes (“Today at noon I opened the saddest letter in the world. I’ve been stunned, inarticulate ever since. I feel so badly I just don’t know what to say…”) are so laden that they measure nearly a quarter of an inch thick.

This thoughtful tribute seems, at least in part, to have been a way for Mary Stewart to process the grief of her husband’s death. However, the scrapbook takes on a slightly different resonance when one considers the circumstances of the year leading up to Stewart’s death. After serving on the Public Service Commission (an agency that regulated public utilities) for three years, Stewart was issued a quo warranto in 1926, requiring him to prove his right to the office in court. Months before, Stewart had been reappointed Commissioner by Governor Gifford Pinchot, but the Governor “evidently changed his mind relative to the wisdom of his selection” and put forth new candidates. The Senate objected to this replacement, which led to Stewart’s case in front of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. It is unclear what prompted Pinchot’s reversal of opinion of Stewart, however a tribute to Stewart written upon his death states that the “bitter storm of controversy” was caused by one particular decision of the commission and that “Governor Pinchot… who should have known John’s character, accused him of a selfish betrayal of the public”. The scandal is also alluded to in the scrapbook. One letter signed ‘Emerson’ reads: “We rarely hear of one individual possessing within himself… the ability to keenly discern between right and wrong and lessly to affirm and uphold the right (even in opposition to a stupid but nevertheless powerful public opinion)…”

Stewart was ultimately reappointed as a Commissioner, but the stress of the trial and fall from the public’s graces must have been traumatic for both him and his wife. Indeed, it was only one year after the resolution of his case that Stewart suddenly fell ill at a meeting of the Commission and died just two hours later. According to his colleagues, Stewart’s “life was expended in the service of the State, for his sudden and fatal illness was due, as the attending physicians state, to the weight of the responsible duties he had undertaken”.

Perhaps because of his abrupt death, Stewart was never able to fully recover his pre-trial reputation. Thus, Mary’s scrapbook, beyond memorializing her husband, is a validation of his goodness and likeability. The two hundred notes of sympathy she received when Stewart died, which laud him as an influential teacher and honest public servant, create a testament to the goodwill that people felt towards her husband despite the  ordeal of his public opprobrium.

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