Stewart, 59, died Monday of an apparent heart attack while golfing at Stonewall Resort in Roanoke, W.Va. His funeral, set for Friday, is scheduled to be a private event, so many turned out for Thursday’s viewing for the chance to pay their respects.
The viewing, held inside a massive ballroom at the Morgantown Events Center (connected to the Waterfront Place Hotel), drew a large crowd. Doors opened at 2:00 p.m. for a scheduled seven-hour viewing, and by 2:30 the room was not sufficient to contain the line of mourners.
Outside, in an atrium on the main level of the facility, men and women alike dabbed at their eyes as images from Stewart’s life played on video screens.
The images showed the two lives Stewart most prominently led: as a football coach, smiling broadly at his introductory press conference after being named head coach at West Virginia, then on-stage, pointing at the Fiesta Bowl trophy he and the Mountaineers won in 2008; and as a family man, posing with his wife Karen and son Blaine at Christmas time, on a summer vacation, and more.
Those who gathered for the somber occasion differed greatly in age (from children to the elderly) and dress (some in suits and formal dresses, others sporting WVU logo apparel).
Among the attendees in the early portion of the day were former West Virginia quarterback Rasheed Marshall, former running back Quincy Wilson, longtime basketball coach Gale Catlett, current basketball assistants Ron Everhart and Larry Harrison and many more.
Many of them had stories to share about Coach Stew, but so did some of the more anonymous among the mourners. All spoke with a respect bordering on reverence for the man they came to see one last time.
Will Armistead got to know Stewart during Armistead’s time working with the Mountaineer Athletic Club. Their friendship continued as time passed.
Armistead said Stewart stood out for being uncommonly thoughtful.
“When he asked you a question, ‘How’s your bride?’ or something about my kids, you knew he meant it,” Armistead said. “He didn’t ask a question and turn away. He was the most sincere guy I’ve ever met. It’s remarkable. How many people do you know like him?
“I just don’t know of anybody like Bill Stewart ... my son played baseball in town, [American] Legion ball and high school, and his name would get in the paper, or Stew would look at the box score, and he’d call my kid up. ‘Saw you went 0-for-4, man. You keep swinging that bat.’ Or, ‘Saw you got that big hit and drove in the winning run. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what champions do.’ I mean, who does that? I don’t. I wish I did. And I’m going to try to start. But I don’t know anybody like him.
The concept of legacy has been brought up frequently since Stewart’s death, with many wondering how the former coach would be remembered by a public that grew frustrated with his coaching at times but embraced the man as a person.
Armistead summed up his own impression of Stewart succinctly.
“His legacy is one of a true gentleman and a true Mountaineer and a true West Virginian,” he said.
Steve Solomon knew Stewart as a parent and friend as much as the public knew him as a football coach, as their sons have been friends throughout their years of schooling.
“He was just a genuine person,” Soloman said. “He was the finest man you’d ever meet. He was genuine, sincere. He cared about those boys like they were his own kids. It was about getting those boys into manhood. It wasn’t about football. It was about teaching them to be men and do the right thing in life, and that’s what his message was.”
Like many others, Soloman was struggling to come to grips with the sudden end to Stewart’s life. He had his own explanation.
“The only thing that makes sense about this is God must have been putting a football team together up in heaven, and he wanted the finest coach he could find. And that’s who he picked,” Soloman said.
Gary Hershman, like many others, had a chance meeting with Stewart on a couple of occasions. Those times left a lasting impression. He admitted he didn’t truly know Stewart and was at the viewing more as a Mountaineer fan than as a friend.
“A longtime admirer” was how Hershman characterized his relationship with the late coach. They met at the Strawberry Festival in Buckhannon when Stewart served as grand marshal of the event’s parade, and Hershman and his two sons spent plenty of time -- two hours, as he recalled -- chatting with the coach and ultimately taking a group picture.
Six months later, Hershman’s elder son passed away suddenly at the age of 37.
“That picture was one of his prized possessions,” Hershman recalled.
After Hershman’s son’s death, Stewart appeared at an autograph signing in Summersville. Hershman attended and brought an enlarged version of the picture with him.
“He autographed it graciously, and he really wrote some nice things,” Hershman said, trying -- and failing -- to fight back tears. “He was just a special guy. That’s the kind of guy he was. Unfortunately, he died way too early, too.”