Samford University president Andrew Westmoreland is known for adding an element of spontaneity to the opening convocation of the fall semester. Tuesday's program brought surprises double-fold for the audience and platform guest Shelley Stewart.
Westmoreland introduced Stewart as a radio personality, author of a poignant memoir, The Road South, and successful businessman for whom, as a child, the future looked anything but bright. "And, he is my friend," Westmoreland said of the president and CEO of O2 Ideas advertising and marketing communications firm.
In an impromptu interview on the Wright Center stage, Stewart told of his troubled childhood and a grade school teacher who encouraged his education, his radio career and its role in the civil rights movement, and how he and Dr. Westmoreland became friends four years ago.
"Now, I couldn't find a better friend on this earth than Andrew Westmoreland," said Stewart. "I feel the same way," responded Westmoreland.
In addition to the unrehearsed questions he posed to Stewart, the Samford president had two surprises in store for his special guest.
Presenting him a Samford football jersey with the number "63" to acknowledge the Birmingham civil rights movement of 1963, Westmoreland proclaimed that Stewart is now an honorary member of the Samford Class of 2013.
Westmoreland also announced that he and his wife, Dr. Jeanna Westmoreland have established the Shelley Stewart Scholarship Fund to assist in achieving greater racial diversity at Samford. The fund is in memory of Mattie C. Stewart, the honoree's late mother, whose birthday was on Aug. 28. Stewart said his mother would have turned 110 on the morning of the convocation.
Stewart told the convocation audience how at age five he watched his father kill his mother with an ax, which led to his being homeless. "In 1941, a teacher told me 'If you get a good education, you can become anything you want to be,'" said Stewart, who graduated high school with honors. While in school, he auditioned for a radio program that launched him on a career that would give him local fame and a platform to encourage human rights.
He recalled playing music in the early 1960s for white teens at a local club where disapproving Ku Klux Klan members displayed a cross. But, the 800 white kids helped him get away from the volatile site. "It was about human rights. The teens knew it was okay to fight for freedom," he said.
Stewart urged the Samford students to "be a fountain, not a drain," as they go about their lives in classrooms and elsewhere. Too, relationships are very important. "Form positive relationships," he said.