Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Blacksburg civic leader dies at 90
Emily Stuart "started so many things that are now just ingrained in Blacksburg," said Mayor Ron
By Jeff Sturgeon
Emily Stuart, a civic leader who brought vibrancy to the YMCA at Virginia Tech and co-founded a
housing project that has helped an estimated 200,000 people, has died. She was 90.
Stuart died early Tuesday at her Blacksburg home, caregiver Ginger Travis said. Stuart had suffered
from health ailments for several years.
The Georgia-born, college-educated Stuart spent the first segment of her adult life engaged in the U.S.
civil rights movement, arranging for interested white college students to meet with black peers when
social norms forbade such contact.
She moved to Blacksburg at midlife, immersed herself in community service and became what Virginia
Tech president Charles Steger Tuesday called an extraordinary citizen. She launched YMCA programs
that continue today while leading the campus Y for 17 years and helped start Christiansburg-based
Community Housing Partners.
"She started so many things that are now just ingrained in Blacksburg," said Blacksburg Mayor Ron
Rordam, who farmed a plot in Stuart's yard that was the forerunner to Blacksburg's community garden
off North Main Street.
Stuart was born Mary Emily Cottingham in Douglas, Ga., earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from
Duke University and studied social work at UNC-Chapel Hill. As a staff member at the YWCA at
Georgia State College for Women in the mid 1940s, she arranged for white students to meet black
college students at a Y-sponsored conference aimed at improving race relations and opposing
segregation, said Helen Lewis of Morganton, Ga., who was a student there and who calls Stuart a
In one such outing Stuart arranged, Lewis spent a weekend in a dorm with black students at Atlanta
University. It was one of many meetings of young minds that "changed my whole outlook on life," said
Lewis, who went on to teach at the University of Virginia-Wise for 20 years and become an advocate for
Stuart's campus apartment "was the center of wonderful discussions along with good food," Lewis wrote
in a tribute. "There were study groups, discussions with visiting speakers and a safe space for a group of
young women to question the stereotypes, Jim Crow laws, economic inequalities we had taken for
granted. We changed under the gentle, loving care of Emily and the learning opportunities she
Stuart later met her husband, Bob, who pursued a career in urban planning, and they had two children,
Rob of Blacksburg and Mary, who lives in Baltimore. The Stuarts lived in Illinois, New York, Ohio and
North Carolina before settling in the Glade Road area, a rural part of Blacksburg.
Said Bob Stuart, 93: "She was a great spirit for all of us, one of those people that you're sad they're gone
but somehow that spirit lives with you and guides you."
Emily Stuart was at home in the country. A naturalist, she fertilized her garden with leaves and had the
thrift to rinse and reuse plastic bags. She spent much time on area trails and is captured in a color artistic
sketch that hangs at the Y in which she points skyward -- probably at a bird, another of her passions --
while leading a hike.
The family home was often opened to students needing housing, including Steger and his wife, Janet,
when they were in graduate school.
In one of her most notable civic accomplishments, Stuart led the campus Y at Virginia Tech in 1970
when it operated from two rooms at the Squires Student Center and was virtually without funds. Under
her, the Y launched multiple programs that continue today, including an arts and crafts fair that draws
4,000 people a year, a thrift shop that sees 15,000 to 20,000 transactions a year, and an educational
program called Open University, whose offerings range from foreign language to photography and
Serving as executive director until 1988, Stuart was responsible for many far-reaching programs that
help fund today's Y services, said Gail Billingsley, who directs the campus Y now. The Y has a $1.1
million budget, employs 54 people and has 600 student volunteers.
Janaka Casper, president and CEO of Community Housing Partners, said Emily Stuart was a founding
board member behind Project Home Repair in the early 1970s, under which students fixed the run-down
homes of low-income area residents. Later formalized into a corporation, it was the basis for what has
become a multistate organization with a $50 million budget and 350 employees. The organization says
206,000 people have received services through the years.
"She was a major influence around the New River Valley in social justice, caring for people of low
wealth. We're all saddened by her departure but she leaves behind a tremendous legacy of good work,"
A memorial service will be scheduled in July in Blacksburg, the family said.