Walter Stewart had friends everywhere he went.
Friends in the classroom, at wrestling tournaments and in the Army, serving during World War II. Stewart loved his family, he loved his athletes and he loved life.
Stewart, who taught physical education and health at Riverhead High School and coached the school’s wrestling team for 35 years, died of natural causes in his Aquebogue home on June 10, his family said. He was 98.
“He just had that personality that was able to start a conversation and keep a conversation,” his son, Jim, of Sag Harbor, said. “You just noticed there was great joy in meeting with the coaches he coached against, but also administrators and teachers from other districts. He seemed to know everybody, and everybody knew him.”
Born in Manhattan on Jan. 4, 1925, Stewart grew up in New York City and attended Bayside High School, where he swam for the school's varsity team. At 18, Stewart enlisted in the U.S. Army.
He served in Italy during World War II as part of a ski team that oversaw pack mules carrying artillery across snowy mountains. Jim believes his dad’s Eagle Scout background with the Boy Scouts of America played a part in the Army designating him to the 10th Mountain Division, where he became a sergeant.
In 1945, Stewart earned a Bronze Star for saving two of his men, stuck in an immobilized jeep in an area exposed to potential German fire. Stewart organized a team to rescue the two men and their jeep in the middle of the night and successfully returned the two men and their vehicle to safety before dawn.
Stewart attended NYU after the Army, studied health and physical education, and captained the 1949-50 wrestling team. He did his student teaching at Mepham High School and learned from wrestling coaching legend Sprig Gardner.
Stewart coached 82 All-County wrestlers and 19 Suffolk champions at Riverhead High School from 1950-85. Riverhead won 242 dual meets, four league dual meet titles, six league tournament titles, and the 1963 Suffolk Tournament.
Stewart also coached football and boys track as an assistant at Riverhead.
He inspired his athletes and other coaches he met. Stewart earned a spot in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2002.
“We know he’s an outstanding coach, the record speaks for itself, but he’s the type of guy who would come over and help your kids,” said Bill Santoro, longtime Connetquot wrestling coach and a 2012 National Wrestling Hall of Fame inductee. “He always went out of his way to say something nice.”
“Everything that we did as young coaches, we all looked up to him,” said former Sachem coach Jack Mahoney, who earned a spot in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2005. “You saw the respect that people had for him, and he taught you how to earn that respect on your own."
Jim, who wrestled under his dad at Riverhead and coached wrestling at East Hampton High School for over 30 years, said his dad was extremely organized. Stewart wrote in capital letters and kept prolific notes of the meets, camps and tournaments he attended.
Other coaches noticed how he carried himself and how he treated his athletes.
“You just knew if you were going against a Walt Stewart guy, you had your work cut out for you,” Santoro said.
“He didn’t holler and scream. That was the best thing,” said Jumper Leggio, who coached at Bay Shore High School and earned a spot in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1997. “There’s no reason to scream. If you didn’t learn your lesson in practice, I can’t help you out there, you’re all by yourself, and that’s what I learned from him.
“He was a great, great man. We’ll miss him.”
Stewart enjoyed reading and writing, gardening, and swimming in the ocean. He loved visiting farms on the East End of Long Island and had a deep respect for those who cared for them.
Jim said his dad truly enjoyed speaking to the people he crossed paths with every day.
“He was a genuine person with everyone he met, and the kids knew it. They knew how much he loved them,” Jim said. “He appreciated any effort that they made. Whether they became champions or they were the third string, they were all treated the same.”
Stewart is survived by his wife of 70 years, Elizabeth, who lives in their home in Aquebogue, as well as his son Jim, daughters Emily of Jamesport, Nancy of Riverhead, Betty of Coral Springs, Florida, their partners, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
His family held a funeral service for Stewart on June 14 at the Old Steeple Community Church in Aquebogue. He was buried in Calverton National Cemetery.
With Andy Slawson