From Rotto boy to leader of learning

29 Jul 2021

By The Record

A portrait photo of Dr Neil Stewart, who is wearing a brown suit, a yellow shirt and a blue and red, diagonally striped tie. He is an older man.
Many tributes refer to Dr Neil Stewart as a humble man of faith and foresight as well as a gentleman of compassion who had helped them achieve their goals in life. Photo:Sourced.

Dr Stewart, known as Neil, was born in Fremantle but lived on Rottnest Island for the first five years of his life.

During this period, his father worked on the Signal Station at Rottnest Island before being transferred to South Mole, Fremantle, in the lead-up to World War II.

As captain of the Lady Forrest, his father piloted damaged ships and submarines into the Fremantle port.

Neil attended South Terrace Primary School and was sent to the St Ildephonsus’ College at New Norcia for five years of secondary education, as it was considered too dangerous for children to be in Fremantle during the war. While there, he excelled in Latin, literature, athletics, and music.

He also became a competent classical pianist and organist and participated in public performances for the school.

On leaving school, Neil attended The University of Western Australia (UWA) to study dentistry.

After two years deciding that he was unsuited to this profession, he transferred to Claremont Teachers College to become a teacher.

Neil’s first appointment was as headmaster of the school at Number 7 Pumping Station, near Southern Cross and with his wife June, lived in a condemned house.

It seemed like he was always destined to be a leader as he progressed as headmaster through several schools in WA’s South-West and later as principal of Roebourne District High School, where he was expected to integrate the white and Aboriginal education community in this new school.

His time in the Pilbara stimulated his desire to improve opportunities for Aboriginal students when later in his career he was able to implement programs at the post-secondary level of education.

Initially, he studied under a kerosene-fuelled Tilley lamp to achieve his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts at UWA. In 1965, Neil was invited to apply for the WA Education Department Study Fellowship and with his family moved to Edmonton, Canada, where he achieved his Master of Educational Administration and finally his PHD in 1968 at the University of Alberta.

He was awarded the Alberta Medal for the highest-achieving graduate that year. Such an award brought prestigious offers of jobs in North America, but he remained loyal to the people of WA who had given him this opportunity to study.

On his return to Perth, he became Director of Special Services in the WA Education Department and later Assistant Director-General of Education in charge of all services.

In introducing new educational concepts, he recruited wisely overseas, bringing leaders to WA.

During this time, he became the Minister of Education’s representative on the WA Government Teachers Tribunal, where he oversaw numerous appeals.

Between 1969 and 1979, he was a member and often chairman of many boards and councils including the State Executive Committee for the preparation of the WA 150th Anniversary Celebrations.

In 1979, Neil became the Director of the Mount Lawley College of Advanced Education and was responsible for the planning and development of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, an academy which gained international acclaim.

As a classical pianist, the success of this endeavour gave him great personal satisfaction.

In 1981, he took up the newly created position of Commissioner of the Northern Territory Teaching Service.

 The NT was at this time moving towards self-government and new structures had to be developed. Neil dealt with a wide range of industrial and professional matters pertaining to education to meet government needs and vision.

Once this was running smoothly, he returned to Perth and was appointed to a senior position within the WA Post-Secondary Education Commission.

Shortly after, he was invited to be the Senior Planning Officer for the establishment of The University of Notre Dame in Fremantle.

He spent a short time on campus of the famed UNDA in the United States of America taking into account the philosophy, values and methods of operation for consideration in planning in the Fremantle campus.

On retirement, he was invited to prepare the statement for the College of Advanced Education to become Edith Cowen University.

In this role, he worked with a range of industry committees to formulate appropriate degrees to meet the needs of society.

In 2000, Neil and his second wife Trin, retired to Mandurah, where they took up memberships at the Mandurah Country Club, the Pinjarra Race Club, the Falcon Men’s Shed, and the Catenian Association.

As a man of Christian faith, he contributed to parish life.

Many tributes refer to Neil as a humble man of faith and foresight as well as a gentleman of compassion who had helped them achieve their goals in life.

Neil left behind a lasting legacy in all levels of WA education. Such is the heritage of a lad from Rotto.

He is survived by his soulmate, Trin, and their five children, 15 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

**This article is republished from the West Australian newspaper with permission.