NEW MARTINSVILLE - Blue and gold flooded Magnolia High School's Alumni Field on Friday afternoon as family, friends, football fans and former students welcomed Bill Stewart home one final time.
The Grafton, W.Va., native best known as "Coach Stew" died Monday at age 59 of an apparent heart attack during a round of golf.
He had a long career as a teacher and football coach, culminating with him being named head coach of the West Virginia University Mountaineers one day after guiding the team to a 48-28 gridiron victory over Oklahoma in the 2008 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. Stewart had assumed control of the Mountaineers following Rich Rodriguez's hasty departure for the University of Michigan following the 2007 regular season.
Photo by Jennifer Compston-Strough
Mourners stand alongside the hearse that carried former West Virginia University football coach Bill Stewart back to his hometown for the last time Friday.
Stewart resigned last summer to be replaced by Dana Holgorsen the same day. Stewart had signed a six-year contract in September 2008, but Athletic Director Oliver Luck changed the agreement in 2010. Luck hired Holgorsen to serve as offensive coordinator and head coach-in-waiting, while Stewart was to serve his final season in 2011.
But his early years shaping young lives - rather than his 28-12 record in three seasons at WVU - were what people at the Blue Eagles' field recalled Friday as they mourned.
Lynn Starkey held orange and black balloons near the entrance to the field, paying homage to Stewart's first teaching job at Sistersville High School, where she was one of his students in the 1970s.
"He started out as our teacher, but he became our friend," she recalled. "He was just a good person and a friend to many."
Her companions, Becki Ferrebee and Cindy Lohri agreed. Ferrebee was Stewart's classmate at Fairmont State, where she "played in the band so he could play football," all the while cheering him on. Lohri said her mother taught with Stewart at Sistersville High.
"He had a phenomenal memory for people," Ferrebee said. "And he was never too busy to ask about your family. I feel like I've been on the edge of tears all week."
Past WVU players Tom Contraguerro, Josh Contraguerro, Quincy Wilson, Andy Goldbaugh, Jack Crow, Eric Turner and Pat White led the procession, which had traveled there from Morgantown, onto the field. Magnolia Principal Kathi Schmalz welcomed the crowd - estimated at 700 - to the tribute on the field, and Stewart's close friend Dennis Balcerek remembered Stewart's lifelong tradition of "protecting his turf." Pastor Mike Shank offered the invocation and benediction, and Sean Maxwell honored Stewart's time as a teacher and coach at Magnolia by playing the school's alma mater.
"He had a conviction to family and loyalty to his faith, friends, players, his coaches and his coaches' families," Balcerek said. "God must have had an opening for somebody to protect his turf. ... My friendship with Bill will live on through everyone he touched in life.
"New Martinsville, your son is home."
Stewart is survived by his wife, Karen Kacor Stewart, and one son, William Blaine Stewart, who still resides at home.
The public memorial service came after a private funeral Mass for family, close friends, coaches and players at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Morgantown on Friday morning.
Stewart was buried at North View Cemetery in New Martinsville.