In Memorium: Gordon C. Stewart 1939-2014

I.I.I. president Dr. Robert Hartwig shares his thoughts on the passing of his predecessor Gordon Stewart:

The Insurance Information Institute lost one of its own last week with the passing of its former president, Gordon Stewart, at the age of 75. Like many, I was deeply saddened to hear of his passing when his wife, Zanne, called me the day before Thanksgiving. That said, there is no question that his was a life that was very well and very fully lived.

I had known Gordon since 1998 when he hired me as the Institute’s economist and was privileged to work alongside him until his retirement in 2006, handing over the reins to me at that time. From my very first meeting with him–my interview–I knew that Gordon was different. During that first meeting we must have spoken for nearly two hours–during only a fraction of which did we discuss nitty gritty insurance issues. The conversation leapt from insurance to domestic and global economic concerns of the day to politics to fine art, to theater and classical music and back again. Gordon could manage to segue with ease between incredibly diverse topics and in the process always leave you a little smarter than you were before the conversation. He could also leave you scratching your head. How does this man know all this stuff? Why didn’t I see those same connections? These were just a few of the questions I often had to ask myself. But I learned from those experiences–and that’s exactly what Gordon would have wanted.

Gordon’s passion for the arts, literature, language and history transcended his professional life. He named our servers and printers after composers. The I.I.I. offices in lower Manhattan showcased his enormous and eclectic art collection, which included everything from ancient Chinese pottery to 20th-century pop art icons like Andy Warhol. His office wall was festooned with pictures of him with presidents (all of them–dating back to Nixon), popes and potentates of every sort from every corner of the globe. Once while accompanying Gordon on a business trip to Boston he met up for dinner with the famous “French Chef,” Julia Child. On another trip, this time to Washington, he gave a free piano concert to passersby in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel. Yes, he was a classically trained pianist, and I was spellbound by the performance (he insisted that he was merely practicing!).

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Gordon’s formal education at various institutions in the U.S. and Europe focused on history, music, art and literature. He was a master of the written and spoken word–and spoke German fluently. His intellect and passion for what he believed in made him a formidable debater and in the final analysis, a very persuasive individual. These traits served him well in his years writing speeches for President Jimmy Carter and while working in the administrations of two New York City mayors, John Lindsay and David Dinkins.

Gordon’s deep political experience prepared him well for his time in the private sector, first with the American Stock Exchange and then with the I.I.I. Gordon was keenly aware of the power of public perception. When he became president of the Institute in 1991, the insurance industry’s approval rating was just 35 percent. By the time he retired in 2006 it exceeded 60 percent.

Retirement didn’t slow Gordon down. The fact that he remained active in the insurance world through the International Insurance Society, the Geneva Association was a great benefit to the industry. And in many ways, the pace at which he lived his life quickened. He founded an online newspaper and was able to fully indulge his passion for art, music and theater–including teaching his young daughter, Katy, to play piano.

Gordon also returned to his love of 18th century music and last fall recruited top musicians playing period instruments to perform his own arrangement of Handel’s Messiah, conducting the concert just before Christmas. He was planning to conduct this challenging piece once again this Christmas as well as Beethoven’s Eroica next June.

It is impossible to summarize the full 75 years of such an extraordinary man. Despite having known him for 16 years, my words cannot possibly do him justice. When he died he was in the midst of writing his memoirs. How I would have enjoyed reading them, end-to-end.

Gordon was an utterly extraordinary man and I had the good fortune to call him a colleague, a mentor and friend. He was someone I deeply admired and respected for so many reasons and I, as well as everyone who knew him, will miss him dearly.

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