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Robert Wright Stewart

Courier article (Nov ‘20)

Chairman Board of Directors, Standard Oil Company; Stewart is CEO for one of the largest and strongest corporations in the world.

Public education in C.R.; graduated from Coe at age of 19.  Law degree from Yale.  After working in a law office in Conn. He moved to Pierre, S.D. in 1899; practice law there until 1905; while in Pierre married Maude Bradley Elliott of Aberdeen; four sons.  In 1905 to Huron, S.D., general attorney for Chicago North-Western Railway.  State senator for two years; state’s attorney from Hughes county and supreme court reporter.  As lawyer in S.D., he represented International Harvester Co, Standard Oil Co., and North-Western Railway. 

1907: becomes general attorney for Standard Oil in Chicago; in 1914, becomes general counsel of Standard Oil.

Spanish-American War: a major in a Rough Rider regiment; later promoted to a colonel of infantry after returning to S.D.

Courier article after his death (Oct 1947); this is an excellent article, well-written, informative.

Born 11 May 1866; died in Miami, FL, 24 Feb ‘47.  Scotch-Irish descent.

Parents: hard-working, thrifty; active in Second Presbyterian Church (Old School) that later became Westminster Presbyterian.  Home located just south of Montrose Hotel, church across the street.  “Robert’s earliest memories include the experience of being scrubbed and dressed on Sunday morning and joining the family in its single file march to the Church; father at the head of the procession and mother bringing up the rear.  As they marched they passed but spoke not to other families with whom they were friendly but on Sunday in violent doctrinal disagreement.”

Robert’s father, William: Dean Steward, farmer and blacksmith.  Vigorous fighter against saloons.

Mother was less pugnacious; Robert always had a deep reverence for his mother.

Sister, Belle, graduate of Coe and Coe’s first librarian.

Graduated in class of ‘86.  “Frequently he drove a team hauling a load of wood or farm truck from the farm near Bertram.  At the end of the school day he returned to the farm and hard work.”

Five men in his graduating class.  One was Edward A. Ross, who was chosen to give commencement address in 1936 at the 50th anniversary of the class of ‘86.  Robert Stewart said: “I shall attend commencement and hear Ed, but shall not agree with anything he will say.”  Ross the liberal; Stewart, the conservative.  Had also been true 50 years earlier.  “Ed Ross as valedictorian had written an oration which faculty and trustees felt was not proper for a graduate of Coe to deliver.  When the little commencement program was printed it was apparent that a compromise had been reached.  Salutatorian and valedictorian had changed places.  It announced, first, “Oration on Modernism in Government, by Edward Alsworth Ross” and second, “Oration on the Constitution, Our Strong Defense, by Robert Wright Stewart.”

At Yale, he worked to pay his expenses.  Evidence of Robert’s independence.  No assistance from father, who had some money.  Did not receive any money when father died because Robert had said he did not need the money.

After law school, Robert pawned his watch and arrived in Pierre, S.D. with $7.50.  His first law position with Jack Horner, who “gave him desk room, the duty of tending the office stove, and the privilege of sleeping in the back room.”  In Pierre, Stewart not only practiced law but “engaged in the cattle business, served in the legislature, represented various corporations having business at the state capitol and ‘played’ politics vigorously on the conservative side.”  He was in S.D. National Guard.

In 1922 Colonel Stewart was at Coe for homecoming football and spoke at alumni argument.  Expressed his appreciation for the vigorous debating in college while upholding fundamental principles.  Ended speech for praising President Phelps speaking in chapel “thundering the proclamations of the Almighty.”  Stewart also gave commencement speech and received honorary doctor of laws degree.

1923: Coe had begun to buy property north of the campus.  Stewart brought his friend E. R. Graham to Coe to study the campus; Graham came up with plan for expansion.

1924: Stewart joins Board of Trustees.  Always active member; regular attender of meetings.  His remarks also focused on “institutional policy” and he left administrative procedures up to the faculty and president.  Strong defender of ROTC.  Also felt college needed a real library.  In 1929, when he retired from Standard Oil, he donated $200,000 for the building, totally on his own initiative.  Building dedicated in 1930.  “Over his fireplace in his Nantucket home was a picture of the Library.  He said it was the most expensive picture on the island!”  When he died in 1947, he left a further $50,000 to the college to ensure the Library’s upkeep.

Stewart also responsible for the construction of Greene Hall.  Felt the college must have dormitory for men; wrote a check and gave it to the college but could only be used if the Board approved the erection of a dormitory, which became Greene.

Buried in mausoleum in Oak Hill Cemetery.

Notes from other sources:

Major in 3rd U.S. Volunteer Cavalry (Grigsby’s Rough Riders); commanded a battalion of the regiment in battle of San Juan Hill.  He enlisted as a private, but he was quickly promoted because he could ride and shot and fight. 

After war he was asked by governor to reorganize national guard.  For eight years after the war, he was a colonel of regiment of S.D. National Guard.

President Gage on Robert Stewart: “He was a man of large desires and great ambition, and he felt limits where to the average person none existed.”

Teapot Dome: 1925 article from Consolidated Press Association

“There are all sorts of varying reports down in Wall street as to the meaning and extent of the vast transaction whereby Edward L. Doheny, storm center of the oil scandals in Washington a year ago, sold out all his Mexican and South American holdings to a syndicate headed by Col. Robert W. Stewart, chairman of the board of the Standard Oil of Indiana.  But there is general agreement as to who engineered the deal.  It was Bob Stewart of the Standard of Indiana, already rated as the greatest producer and seller of gasoline in all the world.”

He brought some progressive ideas to the oil industry.  For example, he believed in the idea of popular ownership.  Stockholders in Standard Oil increased from 4,500 to 50,000.  Created a system in which company employees “have a void in the matter of wages, working hours, conditions and everything affecting their welfare.  More than 15,000 employees of the company are stockholders.”  From article in Chicago Daily News.


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