Works in Progress: From Main Street to the Beltwayby Jim Amidon '87
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Soon after he was born, Brandon Stewart’s family moved to Scales Mound, Iowa, population 380. His father was commuting to seminary in Dubuque and preaching at two tiny Methodist churches. When Brandon was in fifth grade, the family moved again, this time to sprawling Fairbury, Missouri, and its 3,000 citizens.
"When you’re growing up in the family of a pastor in a small town, you’re constantly under the microscope—you feel people watching you in church," says Stewart, who believes such scrutiny was outweighed by the benefits of close relationships. "Everyone knows what your business is, but to be honest, I’d rather know—really know—who my neighbor is.
"You learn how to be in a community by living in a small town; you learn about your responsibilities to the community."
Stewart also learned to listen to others’ opinion, and to be civil when offering his own. Stewart graduated in May after majoring in religion with a minor in political science, but even here at Wabash he’s had to be careful when discussing either subject.
"Unfortunately, those are two things you can’t talk about in public company, so when people ask, I always say I have nothing to talk about."
That doesn’t mean the former editor of both of the campus’s conservative student journals doesn’t enjoy an argument. Nor is he shy about speaking his mind in print.
"I’ve always been attracted to things that involve a fight, which is why I was involved with The Commentary and The Phoenix," says Stewart. "The topics don’t have to disintegrate into something rancorous or angry, but I do love to defend my ideas and push people on theirs."
His work with conservative issues came with a price.
"Nobody ever identifies me as the president of the Inter-Fraternity Council or as a Beta," says Stewart. "But I was the editor of The Commentary, and I felt the history, the baggage; like people I’ve never met were judging me before they even met me."
Sort of like watching the minister’s kid in church.
At this point in his life, though, Stewart wants to move to a large city—not to disappear, but to live in a place where topics like religion and politics are thoroughly debated. A summer in Washington, DC gave him a taste of city life, and he’s anxious to get back.
While in Washington last year, he landed an internship with Radio America, where he quickly found himself working for the G. Gordon Liddy radio program. He spent mornings sifting through the day’s news and events—"current, weird, conservative, and liberal"—hoping to find a few morsels for the show. When Liddy was on the air, Stewart screened calls, trying to find lively participants for the super-charged talk show. Twice in his first two weeks, he put through Howard Stern. By summer’s end, Stewart was pitching story ideas in Liddy’s office, even editing audio that made the airwaves.
After graduation, Stewart will take up the fight with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in Philadelphia. Like his Radio America internship, the job is pretty much wide open and ready for him to make it his own.
"It’s a non-partisan, non-profit foundation that works to protect the civil liberties of students, faculty, staff, and administrators in higher education," Stewart explains. "I’ll be working with students at a grass roots level. I’ll encourage them and remind them that they do have rights on college campuses…and let administrators know that there are people looking out for those rights."
It’s not all politics with Stewart. In high school, he spent summers helping at-risk kids. He found a similar niche last summer with a probation diversion program in Washington.
"Twice a week we’d pick up these kids at the probation office and give them something to do during the day. These were kids into drugs, car theft, everything. We’d take them home at night and see how bad their neighborhoods were, which teaches you a lot about the real people who live in the city and the problems they have."
Stewart has been described as constantly learning and always curious, which is what drove his 2006 exchange program with students from "the other all-male college," Hampden-Sydney. Stewart and three Wabash men spent a few days in Virginia, then rolled out the red carpet for two men from HSC to visit Crawfordsville. The result was eye-opening, both for how the two schools are similar (small classes, honor code, love of sports, and relationships with faculty) and how they are different ("at Hampden-Sydney the whole gender issue just seems so much more resolved").
Brandon Stewart is a small-town kid ready to take on big-city issues, including the protection of political and religious freedoms across America’s college campuses. But even at age 23 he’s got a pretty clear picture of how he will live his life.
"My dream eulogy would go something like this," he says with an emerging smile. "People would be crying, maybe telling a few jokes, and someone would say, ‘He was a good dad and a good husband who always tried to do the right thing…even when he was wrong.’"