Pictured: My Dad Lewis Stewart at my wedding. Photo: Sergio Lopez
For those of you who don’t know, my Dad Lewis Stewart passed away on June 1. He had been facing a private journey with a terminal illness.
I don’t think we are ever prepared for the death of a parent, as much as we might wonder what we will do when the inevitable happens.
If you read Body of Work, you will remember that my Dad’s story was a central part of the book. I am so grateful that I decided to interview my Dad about his work while he was still healthy.
My journey with the end of my Dad’s life has been filled with grace. Standing in his kitchen, talking to my Bonus Mom Dee and long-term friends and neighbors, I was reminded of the way that he loved and cared for so many in his community.
The tender grief I feel at moments is balanced by an overwhelming sense of joy and gratitude that I had a father who lived life to the fullest, believed in his mission and demonstrated quiet, powerful leadership in his everyday walk.
I wanted to share some of the most important lessons I learned from my Dad so that you can benefit from the person who has most influenced my body of work.
Lessons from my Dad
Pictured: My Dad telling the story of community volunteerism in Port Costa in the “Build a Movement Change the World” workshop in the Port Costa School, August, 2014. Photo: Eugene Chan
One of my earliest memories was sitting on a stool in my Dad’s photo studio in downtown San Anselmo. He shut off the main lights, and a dim glow of red lit the darkroom as he gently pulled the photo paper from one chemical bath to another.
After hanging up the dripping paper, I slowly saw an image appear.
He delighted in talking with me about the photo, explaining what made a great image, and how to fix one that wasn’t.
This is the consistent memory I have about my Dad’s relationship with his work, whether I was 5 or 50 years old. He delighted in his craft, and loved sharing about it. I rarely heard him complain about office politics, co-workers or a long commute.
I spent hundreds of hours talking with him about writing and photographs. It shaped how I approach my career, and I am convinced it is why I love my work so much.
Many of my favorite metaphors come from his teaching, like why perfection comes from bracketing.
We can recover from heartache
Interestingly, one of the most devastating points of my life was when my Dad left after my parent’s marriage ended. It was hard to imagine that life would ever be the same without his consistent presence in my life.
As time went on, we created a new normal, and my relationship with my Dad became a core part of my emotional and creative identity. We “got” each other in a unique way that I have never been able to share with anyone else.
As painful as the divorce was for everyone involved, it birthed a lot of great things: resilience, grit, and beautiful new relationships with my bonus mom Dee and bonus dad Larry.
Transformation and recovery were a central part of my Dad’s life.
He maintained his optimism, and showed me that we are not defined by the most painful points in our life.
Always worry a little bit
In all the years my Dad shot photos for his clients, I never once heard anyone who was unhappy with the work product.
In fact, they would usually say things like “This is far beyond what I was expecting, thank you!”
And still, each time my Dad submitted a set of photos, he always worried that it was not quite good enough. If two days had gone by and he hadn’t heard anything from the client, he would call me up and we would imagine worst-case scenarios.
“They probably hate it. I bet they are looking for a new photographer now and I will be fired.”
“I bet, Dad! I am sure that is the reason they have not gotten back to you! They are probably sitting around a conference table, pointing and laughing at your shots, saying ‘What an amateur!”
We would bust out laughing.
I saw his little bit of anxiety as a healthy reflection of how much he cared about his work.
His obsession with details also gave him a tremendous work ethic where he arrived early to every job, with extra cords and back up equipment. This one lesson saved me more than once.
He maintained a creative edge over fifty years because he never stopped caring.
To do long-term work, slow down
Just a few months ago, I was sharing with my Dad how excited I was about the body of work I was building at the Main Street Learning Lab, but also how much I wished that the process of getting everything funded and launched would just speed up.
“What do you do when not everyone understands your long-term vision?” I said.
“Slow down,” my Dad said.
“Slow down and enjoy every conversation you have. Be present and focused in what you are doing. Really listen in conversations, and don’t worry about the long-term goal. Big change requires enormous patience and pacing. You stay focused every day on what your goal is and before you know it, you will make big progress.”
“Most people who throw wrenches in your plans will lose energy and patience in the long term. Be patient, and believe in your mission.”
Take care of the earth
When we were little, we would go camping at Lake Almanor in Northern California. For one day of our two week vacation, we would get trash bags from the park ranger and walk around the entire lake, picking up trash along the shore.
When my Dad was in politics in San Anselmo in 1971, he worked to start the first curbside recycling program in the State of California.
He told me that when he was working on this initiative, fellow council and community members said “That is crazy, housewives will never spend time separating their trash!”
Apparently, they were wrong.
In many decades in Port Costa, he worked with Dee and other volunteers to clean up and protect open space.
He did all this work because he loved the earth and wanted to maintain her for many generations to come.
He was passionate about environmental education and volunteerism. His biggest wish was to pass on an understanding, love and respect for the earth to future generations.
To this day, I sweat when I see a bottle or can on the ground.
Adversity breeds great work
When I was writing Escape from Cubicle Nation, the world’s economy was crashing, my youngest Angie was just one month old, and my husband’s construction business was spiraling due to the Phoenix construction collapse.
In tears, I called my Dad and said “My life is falling apart, how in the world am I supposed to write a book about the wisdom of leaving your corporate job to start a business?”
My Dad said “This experience, as hard as it is, is going to make you write a better book. You know how hard it is to run a business, and all that there is to lose. Put that perspective in the book.”
So I did.
My book won Best Small Business Book of 2009 from 800 CEO Read.
Pops: you were right. 🙂
We take care of each other
My Dad loved people.
I think that is what made him such a great industrial photographer. He would take time to really get to know the people he was taking photos of, many of whom were blue collar workers, suspicious of staff from “corporate headquarters.”
He listened to their interests, fears and concerns. He was quiet and respectful.
This earned him the trust of many hundreds of employees up and down the state of California who would look forward to seeing him on their job site.
He did little things like printing extra copies of their photos so they could share them with their family.
He was a big supporter of and ally to the LGBTQ community, with many of his closest friends coming from this community.
He shared what he had, even if it was his very first bonus check.
My Dad taught me that we need to see the needs, concerns and cares of our community as our own. We use our privilege to make voices heard, and make things better. It was one of his most powerful gifts.
Quiet leadership is powerful leadership
I have always known that my family members are more introverted than I am (understatement!), but it wasn’t until I started working with Susan Cain to launch her Quiet Revolution that I realized that my Dad (and Mom, and sister and brother) all epitomized what she called “Quiet Leadership.”
My Dad was never the first to pipe up in a meeting.
He didn’t raise his voice. He listened much more than he talked.
There were times when I asked him a question on the phone, and it took three days for him to think of the right answer before getting back to me.
But, as his long-time friend Ridge Green told me the weekend that he died, “I don’t know how your Dad did it. He would be super quiet and then just say a few words, and suddenly everyone was excited about getting involved in community projects.”
Ridge, his wife Monica, my Dad and bonus Mom Dee, along with other volunteers in Port Costa, spent 13 years as volunteers recycling all the cans, bottles and cardboard in town every two weeks.
They spent decades restoring the Port Costa School.
They produced huge talent shows, art shows and car shows, with thriving participation.
The only time my Dad was comfortable in center stage was at the talent shows, when he would dress in drag and tap dance with Dee, or channel the quirky Andy Kaufman.
His quiet leadership made a huge difference in his small town, and in the lives of everyone he interacted with.
Community service is just something you do
When I interviewed my Dad for Body of Work, I wanted to capture him on video. My friend Abe Cajudo shot footage that I transcribed and used as the basis for the stories I told in the book. This clip illustrates pretty clearly that my Dad was not about hyperbole. He was driven by the straightforward example he saw from his parents: you serve your community because “that is what you do.”
While I will feel the sting of my Dad’s loss for the rest of my life, I am so proud to carry on with his mission, and do the hard work of making our community a more safe, just, equitable, fun and beautiful place.
I love my work like he loved his work, and I will honor him by never, ever taking it for granted.
Rest in Power, Dad. I love you.