Thursday, May 29, 2014

In Memoriam: Don Stewart

In addition to the vacuum left by the death of Maya Angelou – and I am thankful to my 10th grade English Lit teacher who forced us to read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – another tragic loss happened in my circle yesterday.
He was a man you probably never heard of, yet his actions, his energy, changed your world for the better. His only real claim to fame on a scale you’d know was an appearance in a Sunday comic, Dondi.
He has been knighted by the Dutch royal family for his tireless work in the pursuit of environmental security.
His name is Captain Sir Don Stewart. And he was all that name encapsulates.
Pirate? Nobleman? Scalawag?
He was a most unlikely advocate for the seas. A self-professed pirate, Sir Don accidentally on purpose became a legend. Adrift at sea, his boat limped into Kralendijk (pronounced crawlin’ dyke, and that’s all you need to know about that) harbor on Bonaire, and he decided to stay a few years.
Or so the story goes. Anyway, he stayed there some fifty years or more.
He was a diver back in the day when being a diver meant risking your life. It was a man’s diversion, something epitomized by Lloyd Bridges on the TeeVee. There were no pressure gauges, and if you got bent, you got bent. If you ran out of air, you swam like the dickens to the surface and hoped you’d be OK.
Learning to dive, teaching someone to dive, was a harrowing bootcamp. But Stewart did it. And his students went on to teach others, including me.
Sir Don was a pirate. He drank, he chased women – many of the dive sites on Bonaire are named for one (or more!) of his girlfriends – he cussed and he was a rambunctious old salt. He was a captain’s captain.
Sir Don was a seer. When he saw the reefs and fish of Bonaire, an island almost perfectly suited to be a dive destination, he realized this was a gem that had to be protected. And he proposed to do just that. And as he did, he realized how complex the interplay of the ocean’s environments was, and he expanded his voice in an attempt to protect the seas.
He was an environmentalist and an advocate for the reefs long before Al Gore gave up smoking. He encouraged the citizens of Bonaire to join him in fighting for their seas, their very lives.
Life threw him a curve and not only did he get a hit with it, he put one out of the park. Today, so many of the beautiful beaches you see photographed owe a debt to Sir Don and his efforts to raise awareness, raise consciousness, about the terrible job we humans were doing, shepherding God’s gift to us: the Earth.
His passion was infectious, even into his old age, when I finally met him some ten years ago. Spry and feisty, he hit on every woman at a party I attended, despite the fact was all but confined to a wheelchair, as he had lost his leg.
In true Sir Don style, he had a funeral for his leg – you can visit the grave site at his resort – and replaced it with a wooden one. An ornate wooden table leg.
Sir Don was also a role model. He lived life as it came at him. His dad was an inventor, his mom was an actress, and Sir Don himself patented a sliding screen door and operated three factories under the name “Stewart Screens”. But it wasn’t enough. He wanted to be in films.
That’s how he ended up getting his boat. As with all things Sir Don, he took a roundabout route that somehow led him to his calling. He may end up in the movies anyway, but it is his story, not his face, that will grace the screens.
To my friend, my idol, Sir Captain Don Stewart, the sails are unfurled, and you have embarked on the journey of eternal grace. Godspeed to you.
Altho, somehow I get the sense there is a line of old girlfriends up there waiting to slap you…