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Wednesday, May 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Rights leader retiring from NIC

Tony Stewart, left, receives his honorary doctorate Saturday from University of Idaho Provost and Executive Vice President Doug Baker. Special to 
 (Andy Finney Special to / The Spokesman-Review)
Tony Stewart, left, receives his honorary doctorate Saturday from University of Idaho Provost and Executive Vice President Doug Baker. Special to (Andy Finney Special to / The Spokesman-Review)

Tony Stewart, a longtime champion of human rights as well as a college instructor and public-television host, is stepping down after 38 years at North Idaho College.

Stewart has scheduled a public gathering Thursday to announce his retirement and address his future plans – including his acceptance of a new position with another organization. Stewart, 66, would not answer questions about his plans Monday, saying he wanted to wait until the formal announcement.

“I wish to use this public venue to say goodbye and thank you,” he wrote in an e-mail message to the NIC campus, friends and members of the media. “You have been my special family for a very long time.”

Stewart will leave a legacy as an educator and foe of racial hatred. He was among the founders of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, which became the leading voice against Richard Butler’s Aryan Nations at a time when the group’s Hayden compound was attracting white supremacists and national media attention annually. The mother and son who sued the Aryan Nations – and eventually won a $6.3 million judgment against it in 2000 – worked closely with Stewart and the task force.

At NIC he has organized the annual Popcorn Forum – a lecture series that brings top-tier speakers to town – for 37 years and the Human Rights Celebration for area youth for 23 years. College representatives say he’s been a tireless teacher and supporter of athletics, and helped elevate the status of the school.

The public television show he hosts, “The NIC Public Forum,” has broadcast 1,800 episodes, the most of any college-produced program in the country.

“Myself and the rest of Kootenai County – it’s like we all won the lottery when he decided to move to Coeur d’Alene, and then to stay,” said Norm Gissel, an attorney and friend of Stewart’s who helped form the task force and worked on the case that brought the Aryan Nations to bankruptcy.

Marshall Mend, another founding member of the task force, said Stewart was a key figure in helping to establish human rights as a value in the community – after years when many wanted to ignore the issues underlying the white supremacist group’s presence and activities. “He definitely is a human rights hero,” Mend said. “There was a time when people felt as a human rights organization we were a little too outspoken, and if we’d just keep quiet the Nazis would go away. Our answer is always that silence gives consent.”

Stewart was awarded an honorary doctorate Saturday by the University of Idaho. Several people who attended the event with him said he was honored by the recognition – but also a little out of sorts.

“He is so humble,” said Erna Rhinehart, communications and marketing director at NIC. “He was almost uncomfortable to have that much attention placed on him.”

The big question now is what comes next for Stewart, though it seems likely it will be in the field of human rights. Some friends of Stewart’s said Monday they hadn’t known he was planning an announcement this week, and they weren’t sure what he would do now.

“We’re just waiting to hear from him to see where he’s going,” Mend said. “I just don’t see him getting out of human rights.”

Bob Bennett, former NIC president and now executive director of the Human Rights Education Institute in Coeur d’Alene, said he hopes Stewart will keep working with the organization but knew of no specific plans. The institute grew up in the aftermath of the Aryan Nations lawsuit – it was created with a $1 million donation from Greg Carr, who also purchased the group’s former compound.

Stewart has “certainly left his mark on this community and the college,” Bennett said. “He’s one of the good guys, as they say.”

Stewart’s upbringing in North Carolina is evident in his accent and his courtly manner. Those who know him describe him as unfailingly polite – and unfailingly tenacious in pursuit of a goal. He arrived at NIC in 1970, after earning a graduate degree at the University of Tennessee and spending a year in a doctoral program at Washington State University.

He taught political science and chaired the department of social sciences for 14 years. He also established the Popcorn Forum almost immediately; the event has brought in speakers such as architect and thinker Buckminster Fuller, former Sen. Howard Baker, and civil rights leader Julian Bond.

“We have all learned so much from him over the years, from the people and programs he’s brought to this campus,” Rhinehart said.

In past interviews, Stewart has discussed seeing two white boys being cruel to a black child when he was growing up, and the lifelong effect that had on him. As the Aryan Nations became more and more established toward the late 1970s and as Butler talked about the creation of a white homeland in the Northwest, Stewart and others began to organize in opposition.

The Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations was formed in 1980. In an interview with The Spokesman-Review in 2006, Stewart said the group’s guiding principle was always to speak out against hate.

“We are a watchdog,” he said. “For 25 years the task force has made a determination never to remain silent.”

The work brought him death threats as well as accolades, but the task force became one of several institutions that formed the foundation of Coeur d’Alene’s human-rights network and helped create a focused community effort against hate groups, several people said.

When Victoria and Jason Keenan were chased and shot at by three Aryan Nations guards in 1998, they didn’t turn to the police for help. They turned to the task force – and their lawsuit eventually bankrupted the group and led to the closure of the Aryan compound, which had been for years the site of national media coverage of stiff-armed white supremacists.

“There would have been no Keenan vs. Butler had it not been for the task force, in my opinion,” said Gissell.

The compound was also the planning center for violent and racist acts over the years; at one point, the group’s members planned to firebomb Mend’s office, according to court testimony. Former Aryan Nations members formed The Order, a racist group connected to murder, bombings and arson across the region during the 1980s.

Stewart plans to remain at NIC through July or early August to help with the transition to a new instructor, he wrote in his e-mail message.

He said his Thursday announcement has a threefold purpose – to thank people in the college and community for their support; to outline “several challenges facing NIC”; and to say what he will do next.

Whatever it is, his admirers say he’s already left a huge legacy in Coeur d’Alene as an opponent of hatred and discrimination.

“He just knew he had to stand up against that,” Rhinehart said, “and get people to stand with him.”

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