After graduating from Weleetka High School in the early 1950s, Gary Stewart headed to Stillwater with the intention of becoming a forest ranger. But a hiccup in registration set him on a new path.
“When I came to OSU, I thought I was enrolled,” Stewart said. “I wasn't.”
At a loss for what to do, Stewart remembered wandering around campus and serendipitously running into an upperclassman and friend from Weleetka to whom he relayed his problem. “He asked what I wanted to major in and I said, ‘Either forestry or geology.’ Then he said, ‘Well, there's the geology building.’ So we went in … and it was a brand new world from then on.”
Now more than 60 years since Stewart earned his bachelor’s degree, students are walking into a geology building that bears his name: The Gary F. Stewart Core Research Facility, which was dedicated in November after several years of planning and construction.
When told that the Boone Pickens School of Geology wanted to name the building in his honor, Stewart recalled feeling “humbled, proud and disproportionately rewarded.”
“Honestly, I suggested two or three other people,” said Stewart, who earned a master’s degree from OU and a doctorate from the University of Kansas. He has taught at OSU since 1971.
Such deflection of attention is characteristic of Stewart, according to one of his former students, Rick Fritz.
“Dr. Stewart is very humble and does things without a lot of fanfare,” Fritz said. “He is a consummate gentleman and classic educator. When he talks, you know he is speaking from great knowledge. Dr. Stewart would be described as a quiet man, but in reality he is a great listener and deep thinker.”
Dr. Camelia Knapp, head of the Boone Pickens School of Geology, has only known Stewart since 2018, but it didn’t take long for her to learn that “he is an icon among all of his graduates.”
“Dr. Stewart has taught several generations of students, many of whom are now doing very well in the oil and gas business or otherwise,” Knapp said. “He connected with his students on a level that not every professor is able to do. … He is one of the OSU BPSoG faculty who raised the bar for our school and significantly increased its reputation. The oil and gas industry has always had ups and downs, but the students’ love and respect for Dr. Stewart has always been strong.”
Current OSU geology student Kable Kleck echoed this admiration of Stewart, noting how he “always seems to have a well-thought-out answer for everything.”
“I'm also greatly impressed by his experience and general know-how in topics relating to geology,” Kleck added. “All in all, he is a very intelligent and kind man.”
Kleck, who attended the same high school as Stewart, said it was “serendipitous” that he met the professor when interviewing for the Weleetka High School Alumni Scholarship, as he already had an interest in geology.
“I feel I'm extremely lucky to have run into Dr. Stewart when I did,” Kleck said. “He's been a mentor to me, and helped me quite a bit. I have the utmost respect for him and his knowledge.”
This professorial respect and appreciation from students is reciprocated by Stewart; when asked what the most rewarding part of his career was, he replied, “the students.”
“It's like being an uncle,” Stewart said. “To have known the students when they were so young and exuberant, and then to see them mature and have families of their own and enjoy their professions — it’s something money couldn't buy.”
He then added, “OSU is special in the sense that I believe that we always got more than our share of fine young people.”
Stewart continues to work with graduate students at OSU, using his experiences in academia and industry to teach practical as well as theoretical approaches. “We [as professors] try to make sure that our students have the option of competing well in industry and in academics, whichever they choose.”
Reflecting on his career, Stewart expressed gratitude for the opportunities afforded him. “I wish every person could be as fortunate to have as a profession something they would rather do than fish,” he said. “If I got to live again, I'd be a geologist again.”