By Marlena Hartz
He is the commander of more than 1,000 aircraft and the leader of more than 100,000 men. But Thursday at the memorial service of Ernest “Doc” Stewart, he simply mourned the loss of a friend.
On bended knee, Gen. Ronald Keys gently handed Stewart’s wife a meticulously folded American flag.
It was the four-star general’s gesture of respect for a man who fought doggedly for Cannon Air Force Base, touching the sternest of Air Force leaders and the city of Clovis along the way.
The general was among scores of high-ranking Air Force leaders, government officials, friends and family who attended memorial services for Stewart, who died Monday at the age of 81 from pulmonary and heart complications. Services were held at the Central Baptist Church and at Cannon Air Force Base.
Church officials estimated more than 500 people attended the afternoon church service, which ended with full military tribute, including a 21-gun salute and taps. Four F-16s, flown by Cannon squadron leaders, soared over the church at the close of the ceremony.
Such a tribute is reserved for military elite and is “symbolic of losing someone precious,” said former Cannon Air Force Base Commander, Brig. Gen. Robert “Rowdy” Yates.
Yates is stationed at an Air Force base in Italy, but returned to Clovis to honor Stewart.
“Doc used his power to touch more than organizations, he used it to touch lives,” said Yates, who was one of several speakers at Thursday’s services.
Stewart lobbied tirelessly for Cannon as a Committee of Fifty member. He secured funding for the 38,000-acre expansion of the Melrose Bombing Range and for the creation of Cannon’s wastewater treatment plant, which has the capacity to recycle 800,000 gallons of water per day. Stewart also was an integral force behind the construction of a railroad overpass in Clovis.
But Yates and others who spoke of Stewart on Thursday dwelled not on his many civic accomplishments, but on his passion for life, family, friends and Cannon.
“The boy laughed,” Gov. Bill Richardson said.
“That’s what I remember about Doc: The booming laugh, the charisma, the smile… He loved his country; he loved Clovis — he was synonymous with Clovis; he loved the U.S. military; he loved the Air Force … He loved going to Washington, D.C., with the Committee of Fifty. And he would outshine everybody,” Richardson said.
The governor ordered all state flags be flown at half-staff Wednesday and Thursday in honor of Stewart, whom he said he sought for approval in the infancy of his political career. “If Doc was on your side,” Richardson said, “you knew you would win.”
Richardson’s remarks were followed by a string of others, including those written in a tribute letter by Sen. Pete Domenici, R. N.M., which was read by Committee of Fifty member Randy Harris. “His advocacy,” the letter read, “will be missed as we move towards a greater Clovis and a better Cannon.”
Domenici was one of the many who painted a picture of a colorful man who will not soon be forgotten.
“He helped shape our lives,” said Harris, “and he left us better than he found us.”
In addition to his wife of 62 years, Stewart is survived by four sons.