Long-time Fort Smith regional leader Dr. Jerry Stewart passes away

by Michael Tilley (mtilley@talkbusiness.net) 2,564 views 

Dr. Jerry Stewart, the former CEO of Cooper Clinic who held numerous leadership posts in the region ranging from Fort Smith Public School Board to the creation of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority, has died. He was 81.

Stewart was born in Benton, Ark., and graduated in 1959 from Ouachita Baptist University with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. In 1964 he graduated from the University of Arkansas School of Medicine with his medical degree.

He is survived by his wife Sandy, daughter Laura Hood, two sons, Todd and Daniel, and five grandchildren.

“My thoughts and prayers are with the Stewart family after the passing of Dr. Jerry Stewart. He was a wonderful community leader in Fort Smith and will be greatly missed by all,” noted U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, in a response to Talk Business & Politics.

Stewart, a pulmonologist, was a 1980 graduate of Leadership Fort Smith. His community leadership and service included the Fort Smith Public School Board (1986-1994), chairman of the Fort Smith United Way, member of the executive committee and chairman of the Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce, president of the Leadership Fort Smith Alumni Association, chairman of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority, president of the 188th Fighter Wing/Fort Chaffee Community Council, and chairman of the Fort Smith Regional Airport Commission. He also served on numerous state and national medical association boards, including as president of the American Lung Association of Arkansas.

Stewart is widely credited with stabilizing and growing then Fort Smith-based Cooper Clinic from a physicians group of about 50 doctors to a group that would grow to around 130 doctors when he stepped down as CEO in 2005. Before his retirement, the clinic employed more than 600 people and operated from 25 locations.

Dr. Jerry Stewart

Stewart, a physician at Cooper Clinic, became CEO in 1995 when several events – including a decision by Blue Cross and Blue Shield to exclusively work with Cooper Clinic’s competitor – came together to threaten the clinic’s business model. One of his first challenges was to get the egos of physicians on the same page, Stewart noted in an early 2001 interview with the Southwest Times Record.

“One of the longest and most contentious meetings we had was about changing the price of Cokes in the Coke machine,” Stewart said during the interview.

Emon Mahony Jr., a former head of Arkansas Oklahoma Gas Corp. who served with Stewart on the chamber board, said Stewart was the first person on the list when it was decided to recruit a member of the medical community to the chamber’s executive committee.

“He did a very impressive job, I thought, running Cooper Clinic. So I thought it was time to have a doctor as head of the chamber. As big an impact as it had on Fort Smith, I thought the medical community should be there,” Mahony told Talk Business & Politics.

Mahony said Stewart was a “very engaging guy” who had a knack for bringing together people who had different interests and agendas.

“His ability as a peacemaker, to get people to work together, that was his long-suit. … He knew how to deal with those strong-willed people,” Mahony said.

Part of that skill was applied with a sense of humor, intellect and work ethic.

“He had a wonderful sense of humor … a very open guy and always willing to pitch in. If there was something going on that he saw the merits of, he’d jump right in,” Mahony said.

Billy Dooly, former president of the Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce, also noted Stewart’s sense of humor and intelligence.

Lt. Col. (ret.) Kenny Moix, executive director of the National Guard Association of Arkansas, left, and Col. Mark Anderson, 188th Fighter Wing commander, right, present Dr. Jerry Stewart, president of the 188th Fighter wing/Fort Chaffee Community Council, with the National Guard Association of the United States’ Patrick Henry Award at the 188th Fighter Wing’s 60th anniversary celebration Nov. 2, 2013. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman John Hillier/188th Fighter Wing Public Affairs)

“He was a longtime, loyal friend, who was intelligent, with common sense and a good sense of humor,” Dooly said. “He was a sounding board. … He was one of our go-to-guys all through the years” when the chamber worked on sensitive and important issues.

In addition to his management of Cooper Clinic, Dooly said Stewart’s involvement was critical on lobbying for Interstate 49 funding, early leadership to develop what would become the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority and support of military missions at Fort Chaffee and the 188th Fighter Wing. Dooly said most people may never realize how Stewart’s leadership resulted in outcomes the region now enjoys.

“He was part of those early steps we had to take, as you know, to lay the groundwork for what is now the Chaffee Trust,” Dooly said.

Dr. Cole Goodman, head of Mercy Clinic-Fort Smith, said Stewart was highly respected in the medical community.

“He was never anything but a gentleman to me. … A gentleman to all. He was an outstanding physician, family man and he was a real benefit to our community. He will be missed.”

After retiring in 2005, Stewart returned to his roots and worked with underserved patients at the River Valley Primary Care and the Good Samaritan Clinic.

Link here to the formal obituary.