FOUR OAKS — At about 10 p.m. the day Wade Stewart died, Rudy Baker received a call from a veteran in California.
Beginning with a few local phone calls that morning, word had spread across the country that a fellow Vietnam vet had died. Stewart had saved the callers life in Vietnam, and he felt compelled to share that with Baker, one of Stewarts closest friends and a retired Army colonel.
This made sense to Baker, for Stewart made a habit of being of service to others since returning from Vietnam. Stewart was known for being ready to help whether as a Boy Scout leader or county commissioner, when helping one of his four sons pursue a dream or making sure a veterans family could afford a proper funeral for a loved one.
He was very passionate about helping people, and he loved being a county commissioner because it gave him an opportunity to help people in so many ways, Johnston County Manager Rick Hester said.
At 68, Steward died last month from complications from back surgery hed had nine days earlier. He had been a Johnston County commissioner since 1998 and was still active at his post. Most days he could be found at 301 Service Center and Auto Sales, Inc. in Four Oaks, also known as Chads Shop.
Stewart had helped his oldest son, Chad, invest in the business when Chad Stewart got out of college. He would smoke cigarettes, drink coffee and read the newspaper as constituents, sheriffs and family alike sought his counsel.
He was a roll up his sleeves, and lets get to work kind of guy, Chad Stewart said. There wasnt a problem he wouldnt solve.
In his 14 years as an elected official, Wade Stewart oversaw significant improvements to the countys Emergency Medical Services, as well as major expansions of its schools and business industry.
But what was closest to his heart, friends and family say, was the work he did for veterans.
Stewart established the Johnston County veterans services advisory board, as well as the Vietnam Veterans Chapter 990.
There was no one in this county that pushed harder to get that going than Wade Stewart did, Baker said. I lost a brother when he died, and all of us feel that way, all the veterans in this county.
Before he became a politician, Stewart was co-owner and president of Keener Lumber Co. in Smithfield. He was a fourth-generation sawmiller, his son Greg Stewart the fifth, before the family sold the company a few years ago.
And he had always been heavily involved in his community, whether through First Baptist Church in Four Oaks or coaching his sons little league teams.
Hed always been interested in politics and with a lot of encouragement from community, friends, family, he chose to run in 1998, said Jenny Stewart, his wife of 45 years.
Primarily he was a problem solver, said Four Oaks Mayor Linwood Parker. The two were movie buddies they shared a love of Westerns.
It did not take long for him to make veterans affairs a priority. With him, it was personal.
During the Vietnam War, Stewart left his studies at Campbell University to enlist in the Army. He spent the first year he was married deployed to Vietnam. Upon his return he attended officer candidate school, where he graduated a lieutenant, and within two years had risen to the rank of captain.
His wife says he would have stayed in the military had the circumstances been different. But when the time came to decide, Jenny Stewart was pregnant with their first child, and another four-year stint was sure to mean another deployment to Vietnam. On top of that, his family needed his help with the lumber business, so he finished his commitment and returned to Campbell, where he earned a bachelors degree in English.
As an elected official, he made a point of visiting veterans, young and old, making trips to Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg.
He would not leave that ward until he spoke to every individual in there, Baker recalled. He had a burning desire to help veterans.