Donald F. Stewart, 67, harbor enthusiast, USS Constellation director

March 20, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Donald F. Stewart, whose former role as director of the warship Constellation has been both praised and criticized, died Sunday of lung cancer at Fairfax (Va.) General Hospital. The Herndon, Va., resident was 67.

Mr. Stewart, who made his home in Virginia after leaving Baltimore 10 years ago, was known for his flamboyant maritime dress and self-declared title of Rear Admiral of the Maryland Naval Militia, which he created.

He was noted for his vigorous promotion of claims that the Constellation's lineage dated to 1797. Over the years, he presented a series of documents whose authenticity was subsequently disputed by maritime scholars.

In 1963, based on documentation Mr. Stewart had assembled, the Interior Department declared the vessel a National Historic Landmark built in 1797.

However, in 1991, a naval historian discounted the evidence and members of the Constellation Foundation came to agree that the vessel should be restored as an 1853 sloop of war.

Mr. Stewart said he was responsible for the Navy's transfer of the ship to Baltimore in 1955, although he did not become associated with the vessel until he was hired as a night watchman six months after its arrival.

"There was always a lot of controversy about what he had done, but I think he certainly got people in Baltimore interested in the ship," said Wiley Hawks of Ruxton, who succeeded Mr. Stewart in 1976 as director of the Constellation.

Mr. Stewart was known for his powers of persuasion. In 1972, the Navy responded to his request for a submarine by donating to the militia the USS Torsk, a popular tourist attraction in the Inner Harbor today.

"I thought he was nuts when he told me he was getting a submarine, but there it was being towed into the harbor. I couldn't believe it," said David Whitson, a cousin who lives in White Marsh.

"He was the kind of guy who could talk you out of your underwear, but no matter what, he always considered the Constellation to be his baby," Mr. Whitson said.

Robert Hillman, an attorney and political insider who served as Baltimore labor commissioner in the 1970s and helped organize the first Operation Sail, credited Mr. Stewart as "the first person in Baltimore to think about bringing tall ships" to Baltimore's harbor.

"He was involved in all the tall ship visits. Don could be a great deal of fun and charming, but his greatest asset was his fantastic enthusiasm and great optimism," Mr. Hillman said.

Mr. Stewart was born and raised on Warren Avenue in South Baltimore, not far from the sights and sounds of the harbor where he was fascinated with the freighters and Old Bay Line vessels. As a boy, he would capture their comings and goings with pen and ink, carefully reproducing in great detail the activity of the harbor.

He was a 1948 graduate of Southern High School and attended the University of Baltimore. He worked for an oil company and the Baltimore and Ohio railroad before going to work for the Constellation full time.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. today at Green Funeral Home, 721 Elden St., Herndon.

He is survived by his wife of 41 years, the former Vivien Shoup; a son, Charles Stewart of Herndon; and a daughter, Mary Stewart of Fairfax.

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