Among the nearly 350 loose leaf volumes of compiled biographical material on famous San Diegans in the Serra Museum library, the bulkiest tome is probably Alonzo E. Horton’s?but a close runner-up is one on Don M. Stewart, President of the San Diego History Center, 1947-48.
Not surprising, perhaps, that the Stewart file should be substantial, since the subject was born just six years after “Father” Horton arrived in San Diego. Thus, the years of Don Stewart span virtually the entire modern history of his home town.
In his own words, “I was born in San Diego on August 3, 1873, at the northeast corner of First and A Streets. The first school I attended was the public school located on the north side of B Street, between Sixth and Seventh Streets, known at that time as the “Yellow” School on account of its color. In later years when a new coat of red paint was applied, and still later it was white-washed and the red came through, it was called the “Pink” School. I attended the Russ School, located on the site of the present San Diego High School, from the date of its opening in 1882 until 1891, a year before graduation.”
It is quite possible that Don Stewart is the most fruitful living source of information on San Diego’s history- not because of his years (at 94, he is some years younger than many of his fellow old-timers)?but because of his remarkable mental agility and gift of recall. About the latter he is quite modest (” In those days, an incident was an event”); however, nowhere have these powers been better demonstrated than in the 165 pages of his book, Frontier Port, published in 1965 when the author was ninety-two. For style, human interest, and general informativeness the book rates as something of an historical and literary tour de force.
A stickler for accuracy in the reporting of history, Don Stewart claims there are many inaccuracies (“. . . and some fakes”) in the history of San Diego as commonly accepted today.
He is a veritable mine of epigrams, anecdotes, and amusing commentary (“In those days it was common to be crooked”?” I’d sooner trust a thief than a liar”). He still refers to Mission Bay as False Bay (“You have to be a real old-timer to call it that”). He speaks readily and familiarly of Alonzo Horton and his contemporaries, and possesses many memories of Judge Bush, noted for his attraction to beverages more potent than sarsparilla. On one occasion, Stewart recalls, he met the Judge on Fifth between C and D. Stopping to exchange greetings, he called the Judge’s attention to the fact that his coat was dusty. “Not half as dusty as my throat,” the magistrate replied.
The personal history of Don Stewart is as interesting and varied as that of his home town. His career includes successful ventures in commerce, civic service, military service, and politics. In early April of 1899 he went with a group that undertook a six-month goat-hunting expedition to Guadalupe Island (“. . .an interesting venture but one with little profit.”).
Don Stewart was appointed an Ensign in the Naval Military Service in 1899. When the United States entered World War I, he was a Lieutenant Commander in command of the local battalion of the Naval Militia which, upon induction, became the National Naval Volunteers, and later the Naval Reserve. He was probably the first man in San Diego to receive orders to active duty in April of 1917, the very day the United States entered the conflict. Lt. Cmdr. Stewart crossed the sea seven times during his service in the war, serving for a time aboard the armored cruiser San Diego, which was later sunk off the East coast.
In civilian life once more, Don Stewart resumed his business, civic, and political activities. Allied with the Democratic Party from the time of his majority, he served for more than twenty years as a member of the Democratic County Central Committee. In 1903 he had been elected Councilman from the Third Ward?an office strictly non-pecuniary in that era of San Diego’s history.
In 1909, Don Stewart was elected City Treasurer, and he served in this office until he was called to military service. At one time he was seriously discussed as a potential candidate for Mayor. In 1921, he was appointed to fill a vacancy on the City Council. He was elected Councilman in his own right in 1921 and 1923, and served on the Council until 1927. During all these years he divided his time between his private business and that of the city.
An interesting sidelight on his reelection in 1913 is provided in this item taken from the Union, dated April 13, 1913:
Local: John R. Cothran, defeated candidate for City Treasurer has nothing on Don M. Stewart, his successful rival. Cothran says that it cost him nothing to be defeated. Ste-wart says it cost him nothing to be elected.
In 1934, Don Stewart was named Postmaster of San Diego by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He held this post until mandatory retirement in 1948, and was the first Postmaster to serve in San Diego’s “new” (now soon to be replaced) Post Office built in 1938.
In addition to his service on the Board of Directors and as President of the San Diego History Center, Don Stewart has been active in the Pioneer Society and the Old Timers Club.
The San Diego History Center takes pride and pleasure in dedicating this issue of The Journal of San Diego History to one of its outstanding members and past Presidents.
Several years ago, while he was still working on his book, Don Stewart commented to a reporter interviewing him, “Fortunately I’m endowed with a good memory.”
We remember too, Don.