In memoriam: Bill Stewart
Remembering the economist who helped put the CNMI on the map
Let’s go back to 1970 in the Northern Mariana Islands. The self-governing Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands doesn’t exist yet. The Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands rules Micronesia from its headquarters on Capital Hill. Saipan still bears the marks of World War II and its economy, such as it is, is a work in progress. The Vietnam War is still on and troops are being shuttled through Guam on their way to that conflict. And after Guam on a later flight, a passenger is dropped off on Saipan.
Bill Stewart, always a prolific writer and possessed of unchecked curiosity, takes up the story.
“Disembarking into the warm, early morning hours that September in 1970 on a rain swept tarmac with humidity so thick, it took my breath away, I waited for the 6:30 flight to Saipan aboard a four engine D C 6,” Stewart said in an essay published in the Marianas Variety-CNMI in July 2014. “This was my first encounter with an island in the western Pacific. Forty five minutes after boarding the ancient aircraft for a destination north of Guam, it started its final approach toward a brush lined, unlighted, coral airstrip at Saipan International. When approaching the island for the first time it loomed out of the sea like a mirage, a green protruding apparition surrounded by a vast expanse of blue sky and water. During the descent, my thoughts returned to the strange turn of events that began one evening on the shores of North Africa and eventually culminated in my approaching an isolated island in the far reaches of the Pacific that I barely remembered from World War Two headlines.”
Stewart and his wife Ann just passed away within weeks of each other in their native West Virginia, which saddened many friends they made during nearly 30 years on Saipan, but did not surprise them, given how close the couple had been over 67 years of marriage.
During their time in what would later be the CNMI, Stewart, a former State Department foreign service officer, and veteran of many foreign assignments in that capacity, would play a number of roles with the TTPI as it phased out and the Commonwealth government to come. At the TT, he served as an advisor to the High Commissioner. He would later become a senior economist for various CNMI agencies.
But beyond his credentials as an economist, Stewart brought other skills, including cartography. His mapmaking brought the history of World War II in the Pacific to many worldwide, informing them through maps of the war’s Pacific battlefields in Peleliu and Truk, as well as Guam, Saipan and Tinian. He also published books complementing his research into the war.
Ann Stewart in her youth
Ann was a key to the success of those endeavors, promoting and marketing the maps in particular. An obituary in her hometown Charleston [West Va.] Gazette-Mail recalls: “Ann spoke French, Italian and Japanese, making her a tremendous asset to her childhood sweetheart and husband, William Herman Stewart, during their career with the United States Department of State, when Bill was a Foreign Service Officer. In every country, where their careers led them, Ann was active in community events, charities and business organizations. She was the president of economic service council publications of maps in English, Japanese, Korean and Chinese.”
Stewart recalled how he first learned of what would be his future home for many years:
“I first became aware of the existence of the islands one evening in a village along the Mediterranean Sea as I sat on the balcony of a jasmine draped Arab villa savoring the beauty of a golden sunset as it bathed the 2,500 year old Roman ruins of Carthage, Tunisia, birth place of Hannibal. I was reading a 1967 edition of the New Yorker in which a story appeared about a cluster of islands called the Trust Territory. A place I had never heard of – and now I was about to experience one of them for the first time.”
And a younger generation might well be amazed about the changes that occurred on Saipan in the years to come. “[In 1970]Walter Cronkite’s CBS News was ten days late in reaching Saipan. The world could have ended and we wouldn’t have known it for more than a week from the black and white telecasts originating from WSZE TV, the small television station on Navy Hill that glowed to life about 6 p.m. and went off the air around midnight or earlier to the sound of the National Anthem.”
Arriving on Saipan 13 years later as a TV reporter, I found many of the same things Stewart did. I cruised around the island in a Guam Cable TV van so rusted out that you could see the driver’s legs from outside and that fit right in with most of the other vehicles on the road.
The news focus then was on the new government and the administration of Gov. Pedro P. Tenorio. The waning TT didn’t get much coverage except when a cholera epidemic broke out in Truk and High Commissioner Janet McCoy reluctantly commented on it. My good luck elsewhere on Capital Hill was to get to know Bill Stewart, who seemed to have a vast store of useful knowledge that I often tapped in the years to come. As someone just figuring out word processing, his computer skills awed me before we even had internet access. One afternoon in the modest former TT house he shared with Ann, he walked me through how to set up a 300 room hotel on his computer. Seems pretty simple and basic now, but it wasn’t then.
Saipan may have been a little quaint and behind the times back in the day, but Bill Stewart found it a good base from which to pursue his interests. Besides the mapmaking, he also found time to look into the often alleged Amelia Earhart connection and other matters, such as why the CIA/Navy Technical Training Unit abruptly folded its Capital Hill tent back in the 1950s.
I also got to know and appreciate Stewart’s somewhat old fashioned and quirky sense of humor, which owed a bit to the Rotary Club ethos, but which was more witty and fun.
Ann was justly celebrated as a hostess, which helped Bill and the family business and solidified friendships over the years. I particularly cherish the memory of the only 1950s style cocktail party—thrown by the Stewarts—that I, joined by my wife Remy, ever attended as an adult.
I guess those days are ended, as are Bill and Ann. But it’s a good memory.