04/03/06 — Opinion - A fitting memorial service

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Opinion - A fitting memorial service

By Gene Price
Published in News on April 3, 2006 1:45 PM

There could not have been a more appropriate memorial service for Goldsboro's "Hal" Stewart.

Probably no one in the history of this community had done more for the promotion and advancement of sports, especially baseball, than Luther Harold Stewart who died last Tuesday at the age of 86.

Middle-aged men who had been encouraged, inspired and coached by Stewart were among the crowd that overflowed the sanctuary of Jefferson United Methodist Church Saturday morning.

The tone for the service was set by Goldsboro's internationally appreciated Frederick Brothers quartet -- all former athletes -- who opened the program with "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

George Whitfield, who amassed a phenomenal record as a baseball coach at various levels, was lead-off speaker for the community. He described Stewart as a man "with the heart of a giver" and one who put a high priority on winning. He told of the support he received when he began his career as baseball coach at Goldsboro High School.

David Odom, coach of the South Carolina team that this year won its second consecutive National Invitation Tournament championship, shared reminiscences of his days growing up and playing ball with Stewart's boys. He regarded Stewart and his wife, Jane, as "my second mom and dad."

From the days when he took local boys in his flatbed pickup truck to play out-of-town games, Stewart maintained contact with Odom. The coach said Stewart had called him from his hospital bed as Odom was preparing to leave with his team for the NIT championship game at Madison Square Garden.

"I'd like to be going up there with you, Dave, but I might be getting ready to 'go north'," explained Stewart, referring to his declining health. But Stewart had a parting admonition for Coach Odom: "Now you go up there and win that thing, Boy!!"

And Dave Odom and his boys did.

Stewart died about the time the championship game began.

Odom shared with the audience an experience in his own family. After a Sunday dinner when he was 12, his father took him on a trip to a rural Sampson County farm. Pointing to an empty spot, the elder Odom told the youngster, "This is where I was born. The house stood right here. Over there a ways, you can see the outline of the baseball diamond ... ."

The boy interrupted to complain, "But there's nothing here, Daddy."

The father responded: "Everything that matters is still here."

Odom assured the family and friends of Stewart that the great memories will live on and will continue to be an important part of "everything that matters."

Pastor Doug Johnson spoke of Stewart's "strong and courageous leadership" in the church and community and his steadfast honesty.

He also mentioned his success -- after decades of efforts -- in having his father duly recognized as the state's first licensed aviator.

Stewart's remains were interred Saturday afternoon beside his late wife in the little cemetery in the town of Coats where his parents also are buried. The burial site is near the historical marker erected in honor of Stewart's pioneer aviator father.

It was a moving memorial service. And somehow, one could sense that from a box seat somewhere above it all, Hal Stewart was smiling down on his family -- and the assemblage of gray-haired and balding athletes who always will be his "boys."