God is moving at ECCC through its president

By L. AGNES RUSSELL,

My husband Royce and I went together to interview Billy Stewart on Jan. 30, after returning on the Jan. 28 from a trip we had made to visit family and to attend a prayer center in San Antonio, Texas.  Little did I know then what would await me only two days later, when my precious companion of 53 years, through a mercifully quick heart attack, went to be with the Lord.  The writing of this column had to wait for the shock, the gathering of family, the kindness of friends, and the funeral, to pass. God is good, and He knew I would need something to do for Him. Praise His name! Therefore, I gratefully sit here to type out  Stewart’s story.

I had heard many comments about Stewart and his Christian life and testimony.  The continued advancement of East Central Community College during his six years as president also speak of his excellence in leadership.  No wonder, since he testified to me that he prays two things every morning.  He said to me, “I pray for wisdom first, and then I pray, God, You do whatever you want to do today.  If I’m in the way, push me out and do what You want.  Get me out of the way, and accomplish whatever You want today.”

Billy Stewart, Jr., was born in Portsmouth, Ohio, as his father Billy Stewart, Sr., and mother Linda were there temporarily. They soon moved back to Pearl, where young Billy grew up, graduating from high school with a 4.0 academic record.  He declared, “The miracle in all that is, I’m not that smart.  My dad developed in me a work ethic I cannot get over.”  He said of him, “My best friend, and a very wise man.”  He also spoke of his mother, “My mom is the sweetest woman I’ve ever known.  An encourager, very positive, so kind, very hospitable.” 

In high school he was voted Student Body President, but he found his identity in basketball. He had planned to attend the University of Southern Mississippi and play basketball.  However, in the second game of his senior year of high school, he told me, “I tore my knee up.  That ended my career and dreams.” 

Despite his disappointment, Billy went to USM as a freshman. On his first day there, he learned that his Christian upbringing was not enough. He had been taken to church all his life, had “walked the aisle” at Truitt Baptist Church in Pearl when he was very young, had been required to do all the Bible drills, etc., and “knew a lot about Christ growing up.” 

That day, in that gymnasium at USM where registration had been set up, a student named John Stroud asked him to fill out a survey.  The first question was, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” 

As he stood there, he says, “I finally figured out I was missing Him!  It wasn’t basketball or anything else.” He went back to his dormitory, Elam Arms, Room 309, where he prayed through to the point that he affirmed, “The next morning I was changed.”

About a month later, he had a visit from a man who insisted he had to go to Billy’s Room 309 with him to show him something.  The man testified of his own conversion to Christ in that room five years earlier, saying that every year he would come to tell the occupant of the room of his experience and to show the cross on the ceiling that he had painted at that time. Stewart declared, “Everything I’ve done since that point, I’ve done it for one reason and that’s for His glory.”

Billy Stewart met his wife Stephanie Morris, a student from Columbia at William Carey College, at Temple Baptist Church in Hattiesburg.  They were married on Nov. 28, 1992, and they have been blessed with four children — Stephen, a senior at USM; Will, a junior at Mississippi State University; Elizabeth, a senior, and Emily a freshman, both at Newton County High School.

Stewart said of his wife, “She is my very best friend in the world. I’m blessed to be her husband.  She’s always believed in me and God’s plan for our lives. When she put me through school (teaching at Sturgis, Mississippi) we decided if we could, she would be a stay-at-home mom, and she has been able to do that for over twenty years.” 

His superior scholastic performance would continue throughout college, as he earned his bachelor’s degree in history and his master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Southern Mississippi, and his Ph.D. in higher education at Mississippi State University.  An information sheet given to me in his office informed me, “Dr. Stewart began his 25-year career in education as a high-school history teacher and later assistant principal at Pearl High School. After earning his Ph.D., he served in senior leadership positions at Copiah-Lincoln Community College and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.  On July 1, 2012, he began his service as the 8th president of East Central Community College.”

Though showing humility, he is justifiably proud of the accomplishments at ECCC, which has been progressing in many areas. It now has a four-day class schedule, enrollment is up 10 percent, the highest increase in Mississippi, and the college has been recognized nationally for being a “great place to work,” with only 22 community colleges on that list in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Victory Media has recognized ECCC as being “Military Friendly” for six years, and the number of graduates has continued to climb, with the highest  number being 599 one year.

Stewart gave me an account of something of eternal consequence that happened right before the Christmas holidays.  He said, “Many students’ eyes are being opened to the truth here on campus.”  There was a baptism service at Clarke Venable Memorial Baptist Church, where five students, of mixed races and genders, were baptized, with more than 200 in attendance.   Only four had been scheduled to be baptized, and Rev. Mark Vincent had bought four special handkerchiefs, embroidered with their names for the occasion. He had an impression that there would be another, so he bought a fifth one.  At the service, Bro. Mark asked if anyone else would like to believe in Christ and be baptized. One girl came to the front. Her name was “Faith,” and apparently God meant for that fifth handkerchief to be hers. God is moving at East Central Community College!

As we concluded our conversation, Stewart told me, “I just want people to understand that being President is not who I am.  It’s just what I get to do.  My identity now is based on what God says about me.  The Lord—or the Board — can move me from here anytime and I know that.”

You may contact Decatur news columnist  Agnes Russell  at lagnesrussell@gmail.com or 601-635-3282.