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Homeless to success: Man emphasizes importance of education

December 7, 2018

DOTHAN, Ala. (AP) — Homeless at 7 years old and unaware of his real name until he was 15, Shelley Stewart had many reasons to lead a solemn, unsuccessful life.

Instead the vibrant 85-year-old who became a force in Birmingham’s media and advertising market shared the keys to his success at the Dothan-Wiregrass 2018 Mayor’s Luncheon for Education Wednesday at the Dothan Country Club.

“We all want to be successful people, but we can’t do it separated and uneducated,” he said. “Seventy-five percent of people in prison can’t read or write.”

Born in the Birmingham area, Stewart watched his father murder his mother at a young age. By the time he was 7, he lived on the streets.

His early life drastically changed with two encounters. The first occurred in a church when a first-grade teacher showed him compassion.

“She saw this stinky boy, and she knew who I was,” Stewart said. “She told me, ‘If you learn how to read and get an education,’ I could become anything I want.

“That’s why I love educators. They’re first responders. She was an educator that was a first responder that day.”

The words motivated Stewart to attend school daily. His circumstances outside of school, though, changed little as he lived in horse stables until the fifth grade.

Another encounter reversed that course.

“There was this guy who was watching me walk five miles to school. He had a nice car,” Stewart said. “He was a rich man, and he was white.”

One day that man, Clyde Smith, spoke to Stewart. Smith told the youngster that if he was that invested in his education, he could live at his home located just a half-mile from the school.

Stewart lived with the family for a few years and dined with them daily.

“They taught me I was a human being, that I wasn’t just a colored boy,” he said.

With that confidence and education, Stewart found his calling in radio and became an important voice in the Civil Rights Movement. He also helped found the o2ideas advertising firm, which has represented clients like Verizon, UAB, and Alaga Syrup.

“I’ve had dinner at the White House with President Jimmy Carter,” he said. “I ate with Rosa Parks and ate with Martin Luther King Jr. All the challenges (I faced) showed me I was a child of God.”

Stewart, profoundly impacted by education, also initiated the Mattie C. Foundation — which aids educators and community leaders reduce high school dropout rates. In addition to the value of education, Stewart emphasized the importance of racial unity.

“I love America,” he said. “I know it takes both the black keys and the white keys on a piano to play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’.”

The luncheon, organized by the Christian Brothers Network, served as a fundraiser for scholarships that will be awarded to Wiregrass students. Students in Henry, Houston, Dale, Geneva, Dale, and Coffee counties are eligible for the scholarships.

Darius McKay, Christian Brothers Network president, said the scholarships provide a way for his organization to expand its impact. The organization promotes educational, job readiness and housing development opportunities.

Applications for this year’s scholarships will be available at www.christianbrothersnetwork.com beginning Jan. 1, 2019. The application deadline is March 1.

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Information from: The Dothan Eagle, http://www.dothaneagle.com

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