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A Heart For News: Rick Stewart

Rick Stewart’s Journey Leads to the Order of the Long Leaf Pine

The Order of the Long Leaf Pine, among the most prestigious awards bestowed by the Governor of North Carolina, was recently presented to Rick Stewart, assistant professor of communications in the School of Visual, Performing, and Communications Arts at Barton College and retired publisher and editor of four newspapers formerly under the umbrella of the Johnstonian News Group. This distinguished recognition is awarded to those who have provided exemplary service to the State, having strengthened North Carolina through the impact of their work within their communities and across the region.

Unbeknownst to Stewart, his newspaper staff nominated him for the award with the support of current and former elected officials in Johnston County.

“I was completely surprised and humbled by the Long Leaf Pine recognition,” Stewart notes. “I had no idea it was in the works. My wife, Karen, deserves more credit than I do, because she has been the motor that has made getting the papers out each week possible. We are, indeed, appreciative of the recognition and to all who had a hand in making it happen.”

Yet, perhaps even more impressive than his award is Stewart’s journey that led to this most memorable moment.

A longtime Kenly resident, Stewart’s roots run deep in Wilson. The son of the late June and Doug Stewart, he is a 1967 graduate of Wilson’s Ralph L. Fike High School and a 1971 graduate of Barton College (then Atlantic Christian College). And, this is where his newspaper journey began.

Pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in History at ACC, Stewart was frustrated during his senior year with the level of writing on “The Collegiate,” the College’s student newspaper. So, he decided to run for editor, an elected student position at the time. He lost the election, but he became a sports writer for the student newspaper. His interest in journalism had been ignited, and he began to grasp the basic principles of newspaper writing and publishing.

Milton Rogerson, the College’s director of publicity and advisor for “The Collegiate,” took Stewart under his wing and taught him “how to compose a story on a typewriter and how to write in a journalistic style,” Stewart explains. “Mr. Rogerson encouraged me, and he inspired me. Because of his coaching and encouraging words, I was offered a job at ‘The Wilson Times’ in the sports department upon graduation in 1971. Claude Starling at ‘The Wilson Times’ proved to be another mentor who showed me the power of words that I had not appreciated before. Under his coaching, I began the journey from being a reporter to becoming a wordsmith.”

Stewart admits that it took him about a year to realize that sports was not his calling, but by that time, he did know that journalism would be his career. He loved writing and decided to complete a Master of Arts degree in Journalism at the University of South Carolina. While he completed his master’s degree, his soon-to-be wife, Karen, completed her education degree at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. They were married in 1973, and he was offered a job at “The Greensboro Record” in September of that same year. “I started out as a crime beat reporter and then covered several other beats, including courts and education, before moving to general assignments,” Stewart reminisces. He adds that his experiences on the front lines of journalism have provided real-life examples for some interesting classroom discussions with his students.

Seven years at “The Greensboro Record” made Stewart realize that what he really wanted was his own newspaper. “I began looking for towns that did not have a newspaper, with the idea of starting my own paper,” he continues. “I discovered the paper in Kenly was for sale, and Karen and I bought it. We had one three-year-old son and another son on the way when we moved to Kenly, and I instantly became editor, publisher, and advertising sales manager.”

Fast forward to 2002. “Out of the blue, Hal Tarleton, editor of ‘The Wilson Times,’ called me to ask if I’d be interesting in teaching journalism as an adjunct instructor at Barton,” Stewart explains. “He had been teaching courses, but his responsibilities at the paper demanded more of his attention, and he needed to step away from the classroom. I had taught a couple of adjunct journalism courses for High Point College (now High Point University) while I was working with ‘The Greensboro Record,’ but I had never thought of going into teaching.

“My response to Hal was that I’d sure give it a try,” Stewart notes. “My first experience teaching at Barton was wonderful. The students were great, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It wasn’t long before a full-time position opened, and I was encouraged to apply. I was hired to teach and have enjoyed every minute of it.”

Stewart had come full circle from being a student reporter on “The Collegiate” staff to being the advisor of the student newspaper and an assistant professor of journalism at his alma mater.

Stewart is quick to mention that his wife Karen’s undergraduate degree is in elementary education, coupled with a Master of Education degree. She stopped teaching when their first son, Brian, was born. And, she was fully involved with “The Kenly News” by the time their second son Mark, also a Barton alumnus, was born.

“Karen became an integral part of the operation as soon as we bought the paper,” Stewart notes. “She learned to do everything from sell ads, write articles, layout the pages, and keep the books.

“After I started teaching at Barton, she asked me one day, ‘Does it seem strange to you that I have an education degree and I’m running the paper, and you have a journalism degree and you’re teaching?’ he adds, smiling. “We both had a good laugh. But with that said, I could not teach at Barton without Karen. While my schedule at Barton allowed me to work at the paper in the afternoons and on weekends, it was Karen who did most of the heavy lifting while I was not there.”

With his retirement from publishing and the sale of his four newspapers to The Wilson Times Company this past September, Stewart is reflective of the past several decades of his life. He credits God’s guiding hand in leading him to graduate school long before he needed that degree to teach. He sees that same guiding hand opening a door for a newspaper and a community in need of an owner and publisher. And, Stewart remains most thankful to God for bringing his wife, Karen, into his life.

“Everything I’ve been involved in has brought me into contact with some of the most wonderful people you can imagine,” Stewart concludes. “I’ve been so blessed to have two professions that have put me in touch with so many interesting people who have made me better because I knew them. I did not imagine that I’d ever find anything more rewarding than producing a community newspaper each week. But, when I started teaching at Barton, I realized that teaching college students was icing on the cake. Everything is about the people you encounter everyday. And, as I tell my students, whether they like it or not, they will take some of me with them when they graduate, and they will leave some of themselves with me.”