For Jim Stewart and Frances Dyer, contributing to the community has always been a part of life. Growing up in Durham, Stewart was keenly aware of his father’s (John “Shag” Stewart) passion and impact in the region, and knew he had big shoes to fill.
“My dad’s favorite expression was that a person’s place is in the arena, not the grandstand,” Stewart said. “My parents believed deeply in contributing to the community. Even before the Foundation was founded, I was rooted in that viewpoint, and once it was, I got to witness a different kind of giving back in action.”
Stewart says he remembers well the beginnings of the Foundation, because his father was passionate about collective giving and worked with Shannon St. John (the Foundation’s first President), connecting her to the people he knew in the community. As a city councilman for 17 years in Durham, his father wanted to leverage any relationships he could to get the Foundation off the ground. Stewart says that passion and work ethic was passed down to him, by way of example.
For Dyer, a connection to Stewart’s father also set her philanthropic spirit in motion. She grew up in Atlanta, went to Spelman College, and came to Durham the day after graduation “to figure out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.” She found a strong sense of community here and put down roots. Those roots led her to law school and when she began practicing over 30 years ago, she met Stewart’s father, and the rest is history.
“Anyone who came to Durham knew that Shag was a part of the Foundation,” she said. “He wanted to make sure that whomever he talked to, they would bring to the forefront that it is our responsibility to take care of the community. I was bit by the bug early – we don’t get a free pass in life, we can’t just sit here and expect things to change. We have to change them.”
Married since 1990, the couple is focused on doing good in the community, and recognizes that it has become their legacy, as well as Shag’s. Dyer says she weighs heavily the importance of being able to look back over your time and see what you accomplished to make a difference. That a legacy is the passing down of something – values, ideas, or resources. And that’s important.
“We tend to lose those in our society – values and ideas. To some people it means we need to do exactly what our predecessors did. I don’t think that’s true. There’s always something to learn, something to change. Maybe it’s the values system that’s passed down, and even though to implement them now may look completely different, there is still a thread there that you can call a legacy,” she said.
Stewart says he wants their legacy to be a reminder to get involved. That people will continue to contribute time, talent, and treasure. That they can encourage the next generation to lead by example.
And that starts with being involved, Dyer says. “Once you start being challenged to make a difference, it grows on you. It’s difficult because you will always encounter people who don’t want to make the move to change. And that’s the challenge,” she said. “To show them it can be better if they change just a little bit – if they shifted a little, it would be better for everyone. The rub of differences and different ideas, is what creates something better because each side gives up something, and you end up with a wonderful product.”
So, what are they passionate about? Both Stewart and Dyer say issues affecting children. Supporting work that is helping to expose and educate children to opportunity is important to them, as they recognize that there are so many roadblocks for children to grow, and thrive, and be successful. Stewart specifically made the connection between education and healthcare. “A supporting factor to success for children is healthcare, and access to healthcare,” he said. “Obviously you need quality healthcare to live. It’s hard to learn if you’re sick and hungry.”
Dyer added that our society seems to forget that most of the learning a child does is before the age of 7, and it’s important that we’re providing what they need during that time frame. She finds it difficult to walk by any child and not acknowledge them because kids, she says, just want to be seen. “Even if it’s such a small moment, that’s important,” she said. “It’s an important part of our shared legacy – to adequately prepare the future generation.”
Dyer adds that another issue she cares deeply about is women in achievement. As an involved participant in encouraging women in leadership, she says that being involved is key.
“Women are beginning to emerge and be involved even with the challenges and barriers they face,” she said, “and that’s important to note.”
If they could leave people with something to think about, Stewart and Dyer said that they want people to think about how sometimes the smallest thing can make the largest difference. That empathy, kindness, and selflessness can go a long way. And that we have to keep moving the ball forward, however small a step it may be towards making life better for everyone.
“What can you do to make something better for someone else, “said Dyer. “Empathy can lead to an action that improves a situation. If you see something you can improve, no matter how small, if you don’t do that, it’s a wasted opportunity to make a difference in the community, a family, a person. If we’re selfless, and that leads to a community that’s thriving, we foster all needs, and everything improves.”
Jim and Frances are Fundholders at the Foundation.
Written by Meg Buckingham, Director of Marketing and Communications