“Where is Troy, Miss’ippi? Where did you get your education?”
“If you go to Troy and look straight up,” says Zack Stewart,”then look all the way around the horizon, you’ll see that it’s the same distance to the sky in all directions. Troy is the center of the world.”
Some say that “sense of place” is a key element in the character of many successful people, especially creative people.
Zack Stewart is a successful and creative man by any measure: engineer, politician, “best tree-climber in Mississippi,” builder, and co-creator of a project that rivals the Tombigbee Waterway and The Delta as one of Mississippi’s large-scale human creations, a project that required prodigious imagination and even greater perseverance.
Last year, when a hundred or so state and national politicians gathered here in New Albany to celebrate the official opening of Interstate 22, two New Albany residents, Zack Stewart and the late John David Pennebaker, were recognized as the two living individuals who deserved great credit for the existence of I-22 and more than 1,000 miles of additional modern four-lane highways that now crisscross Mississippi.
The bill to create what is now known as the “1987 Four-Lane Highway Program” was introduced into the state legislature. It envisioned creating 1,077 miles of four-lane highway at a cost of $1.6-billion dollars. Bold as that idea was 29 years ago, a bill to fund and build the highways passed both houses of the state legislature. Then Mississippi Governor Bill Allain, who wanted to abolish the Mississippi Highway Commission, vetoed the bill. The fight was on. The legislature overrode Allain’s veto and passed the law with just one vote to spare. Next came a year-to-year fight to keep it funded and otherwise on track for completion.
As with the Tombigbee or the work to turn the Mississippi Delta into one of the world’s premier places for producing row crops, building those 1,000-plus miles of four-lane road required felling tens of thousands of trees and moving millions of cubic yards of dirt to fill in swamps.
Today the originally authorized 1,000-miles of four-lane highway are finished, and a couple of hundred additional miles have been built. The battle against nature and restrictive state budgets was a long one.
Zack Stewart was born and built to fight, and fight he did, until the new highway system was complete. Stewart, as keen at understanding himself as he is at reading other people, says this: “If I have a key attribute it’s this: if I decide I want something, I stay with it until I usually get it.”
Both physically and mentally, Zack Stewart is equipped to win his battles. He is not a large man, well under six-feet tall. He is 79 years old and has been battling cancer for several years. However, to this day, if you set out to whip him, pack a lunch. If you don’t knock him out with your first lick, you’re in for a long day.
Zack Stewart was born in Tippah County on June 27, 1937, a Sunday. His family moved to Troy, Mississippi, in the southeastern corner of Pontotoc County, when he was a small child. His father was one of three teachers in a public school for grades 1 – 8. Besides the school and several houses, the other buildings in Troy included two stores, a post office and a Masonic Lodge.
Zack’s father died of tuberculosis and cancer when Zack was seven years old.
“We had it pretty rough when my father died,” he recalls. “There wasn’t any welfare or food stamps. Your neighbors and church people would help you out a little.”
His mother kept the family together, and Zack finished the eighth grade at the Troy school. “I could read and write and do simple arithmetic,” he recalls. He went to high school at Pontotoc High School. There he met his future wife, Betty Jo Jaggers. (“I fell in love with Betty Jo in the ninth grade.”) He played football and basketball and spent little time studying. By his own account, he stayed in trouble, which resulted in his not being allowed to play in a few football and basketball games. “I had so many bad deportment marks that they had me down as a damned little heathen.”
At Starkville he spent little time studying, except for studying the cards and faces of his opponents in poker games. “Poker is enjoyable and it is addictive. You have to be able to read the opposition — their ‘tells’ — and I was pretty good at it,” he recalls. “I was flunking out of Mississippi State, because I was spending so much of my time playing poker.”
At that time Stewart had a brother serving in the United States Marine Corps. “I figured since I was going to flunk out of college that I would join the Marine Corps.”
He signed up for the Marine Corps in February, 1957. He was inducted into the USMC on June 12, 1957, a few days before his 20th birthday, and soon began studying electronics in special Department of Defense (DOD) schools, one of which was in Rochester, New York.
“The first time I was sent to the DOD electronics school at Rochester, I saw that they had a big wall map of the United States. I studied it carefully and discovered that Troy, Mississippi, was not shown on the map. I penciled it in. When I went back to Rochester some time later for another electronics course, I was pleased to see that Troy was still on the map.”
Zack spent most of his time in the Corps attending electronics schools, and, while still in uniform, took and passed the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) difficult test to become a “First Class Radio-Telephone Operator.” The FCC’s “first ticket” exam was one failed by a great many people with university degrees in electrical engineering.
Zack and his high school sweetheart, Betty Jo, were married while he was still in the Marine Corps. Their marriage would span 52 years and produce four children.
When he mustered out of the USMC, Stewart went to work as a First Class Engineer for WCBI-TV in Columbus, MS. While working at WCBI, he saw a notice that IBM was hiring computer engineers. He tested for the program and was hired for $400 a month. Stewart continued working as an IBM engineer and continued his active participation in “the best sport a fellow can engage in:” coon hunting.
The best part of coon hunting for Stewart was “climbing the trees to shake the coon out of the tree.” Like many coon hunters, he often did not carry a gun. The objective was to see whose dog was best at “treeing” a coon. When the dogs gave the distinctive yelp saying they had run a coon up a tree, hunters would exclaim “mark my dog” or “tree my dog” or “strike my dog.”
The night of October 13, 1965, Zack went coon hunting alone in the “middle of the Tallahatchie bottoms in Lafayette County” to train a young dog. It was one of the unusual occasions when he took along a rifle in order to kill a raccoon, so the dog could sniff its carcass. The young dog ran a coon “up a big maple tree,” and Zack climbed the tree chasing the coon. He missed a limb and fell 30 feet to the ground, fracturing his back in three places.
Over a number of hours, using his .22 rifle as a crutch, he made his way to his truck and drove himself to Shands Hospital in New Albany. When he arrived, Dr. David Ellis, the only doctor present, was “trying to help a woman deliver a baby, and I had to wait.”
“They wouldn’t admit me, because I didn’t have $25. Betty Jo had to bring a check for $25 so they would treat me.”
Finally, ten to eleven hours after falling from the big maple, Stewart was x-rayed and examined by Dr. Ellis. “He said I had to go to Campbell’s Clinic in Memphis. They put me in an ambulance that also served as a hearse and took me as far as Holly Springs, where I was transferred to another hearse-ambulance for the rest of the trip to Memphis.” He stayed at Campbell’s Clinic for about 10 days before he was sent back to New Albany in another hearse-ambulance to recuperate. It was long recovery, an injury that still gives him pain. He did, however, recover sufficiently to continue hunting coons until 1975, which was the first time he ran for Northern District Mississippi Highway Commissioner.
He got beat in 1975, ran again in 1979 and got beat again.
He ran for the job a third time in 1983, using the campaign slogan “It’s Zack’s Time!” and won. He was re-elected four times before retiring from the job in 2005.
While the 1987 Four Lane Highway Program stands as the greatest single accomplishment of his 20 years on the Highway Commission, the job was not all fun.
During the 1980s, the FBI launched “Operation Pretense,” an investigation of road work purchasing practices and supplier kick backs, which resulted in the indictment and conviction of a few dozen county supervisors around the state.
“The word was out that ‘Zack is going to be indicted,'” Stewart recalls. A man who clearly believes that the best defense is a good offense, Stewart wanted to go to the FBI to make his case. Several friends, including some distinguished lawyers, told him not to do it, not to volunteer to talk to the FBI. One judge told him, “They can indict a brick, but they can’t convict it.”
Instead, Stewart relied upon his own self-confident impulses and called the FBI office in Tupelo for an appointment.
“I went to see them. I told them about every campaign contribution I had ever received. They listened and apparently decided, ‘This damned old boy is too stupid to be involved in any corruption.'”
Another career-threatening crisis occurred in 1995. Zack had been to an event in Oxford, and had had a couple of drinks. On his way back to New Albany, he was stopped by a young Mississippi Highway Patrolmen and asked if he had been drinking. Stewart admitted that he had, indeed. He was arrested on DUI charges and booked. He handled it exactly right. The very next day he issued a press release giving details of his arrest, acknowledging his guilt, and stating his intention to submit to whatever punishment the courts imposed.
His action was in sharp contrast to those of Chuck McRae, a Mississippi Supreme Court Justice, who had been arrested for drunk driving a short time before. McRae noisily proclaimed his innocence, fought the charges, and, as columnist Sid Salter said, “put a big red bull’s eye…on his political backside.”
Stewart’s reactions to the charges against him, in contrast to those of those of Chuck McRae, actually raised him in the esteem of many Mississippi voters. Honesty, in that instance, had its rewards, and Zack Stewart won re-election later that same year, with a comfortable margin over his challengers.
Stewart has not been idle in the dozen years since his retirement. He has continued to “make things” and has traveled extensively. Beautiful wooden bowels are among his creations. He has never sold one, but makes them only to give them away.
Betty Jo got sick and suffered through a long illness, during which Zack was, for most of the time, her sole care-giver. She died in 2011. Among the songs played at her funeral was Willie Nelson and Leon Russell’s rendition of “On the Road Again.”
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We first interviewed Zack Stewart for this article on Tuesday, May 27th. He had just recently completed his most recent cancer treatment and was not feeling at all well. He had lost most of his hair and a great deal of weight. He was weak and could eat very little, if at all. Less than a week later we tried to contact him to complete work on this article. He was gone. He had hooked his camper to his pick-up truck and driven by himself to The Badlands, The Black Hills of South Dakota. He was back a few days later after being “on the road” for a round trip of nearly 4,000 miles.
We finally had time to sit down together again during the Labor Day weekend. His hair has grown back. He has gained back weight and strength. He is building things.
And his camper-trailer sits ready to be hitched to his pickup truck on short notice when the road beckons again. Caution, this is a thoroughly dangerous man.
For more about the I-22 naming ceremony in New Albany: Pennebaker and Stewart honored at ceremony