Mary Raissi Stewart ’42, HON ’13 may have graduated AIC more than 75 years ago, but she still remembers the gentle teasing she received for arriving late to an early class. “I was a commuter catching a ride in with someone else, trying to make an eight o’clock class. We were always running a couple of minutes late, and when we would walk in the professor would announce, ‘Here comes the contingent from Connecticut!’”
Raissi Stewart chuckles at the memory, and follows up with high praise for her college instructors. “The AIC professors were a wonderful group. They all came from places like Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, but they were so friendly. If you had any problems, they were there to help you.”
Following in two of her sisters’ footsteps, attending AIC was a natural choice for Raissi Stewart. “My sisters Pauline and Poppy both went to AIC. In fact, I was known as ‘Poppy’s sister’ to the upperclassmen.”
Raissi Stewart studied business and education, the perfect combination for her future career as a teacher of business administration skills, and excellent preparation for her stint as chief yeoman in the SPARS, part of the United States Coast Guard (USCG).
“After I graduated AIC, I started teaching secretarial skills in a private school in New Britain, CT,” said Raissi Stewart, “but I saw all the men being recruited and I thought maybe I should do the same thing.”
Spurred on by a sense of patriotic duty, Raissi Stewart spent the next few years during World War II serving her country with management skills she’d honed at AIC. “I helped them set up the training school for the SPARS, all those kinds of administrative duties,” Originally stationed at the Biltmore Hotel in Palm Beach, FL, she was eventually assigned to work for Admiral Joseph Farley, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, in Washington, DC. “They decided I could go to the top man.”
After the war was over, however, Raissi Stewart returned to civilian life, earning a master’s degree from Boston University and teaching at Holyoke Community College and at the University of Vermont before returning to AIC in 1949 as alumni secretary.
“I set up all the files for every class going back to 1885, the year AIC was founded,” she said. “I processed the correspondence from graduates, did the bulletin with the alumni news, tried to set up alumni clubs, and coordinated all the alumni activities.”
It was during her time as AIC alumni secretary that she met her future husband, Robert Stewart, and the two tied the knot in 1958. By 1960, the couple had pulled up stakes and relocated to St. Croix. “Friends of ours had visited the Virgin Islands and when they came back, they said we should look it over. So we did. We rented a little car and explored. There were only about 10 cars total on the island at that time and now there are 30,000!”
That trip led to a lifetime spent on a Caribbean island no more than 30 miles wide from east to west. “We decided to do something different,” said Raissi Stewart. “We were a real minority, real outsiders. They called us ‘The Continentals.’ My husband went into real estate and I started out doing typing part time for a law firm, then I began teaching, and I ended up staying there for 56 years.”
Raissi Stewart was actually instrumental in founding the St. Croix campus of the College of the Virgin Islands (now University), which has campuses on St. Thomas and St. Croix, and an academic center on St. John. “There was no college there when we arrived, but in the very early sixties, the legislature allocated funds to start a college on St. Thomas.”[pullquote align=”right”]”I used to tell my students who were struggling with something hard, ‘Don’t give up on yourself. Don’t let anybody discourage you. Work at it and prove them wrong.'”[/pullquote]
When word got out that Raissi Stewart had a master’s degree, she was asked to set up the secretarial program and invited to teach, becoming the first full-time professor of the St. Croix campus. “We had about 25 students to begin with, and now there are about 2,000.”
After Raissi Stewart retired in 1986, she penned a memoir, Memories of the Founding and Early Years of the College of the Virgin Islands, on St. Croix 1960-1986. In 2013, at the age of 93, she was awarded an honorary degree from AIC in recognition of her decades of work as an educator and staunch AIC supporter. “It came as a complete surprise to me,” she said. “But it was wonderful, a lovely ceremony, and when I saw the number of graduates, I was astounded. Our graduation class in 1942 was 60-something!”
Raissi Stewart celebrated her 97th birthday this past June and now lives most of the year in Deerfield Beach, FL, in a community called Century Village. She likes to joke that she’s now “trying to make it to the century part of Century Village.” She returns to Connecticut every year to celebrate her birthday and stay with family for a few months, and travels to Greece often to visit relatives.
“My favorite hobby is walking—that’s why I’m so healthy! I’m in good health and good spirits. No doctors, no pills. I do go to the V.A. once a year for a check-up but they just shake their heads when I come in. They can’t believe I was born in 1921.”
Raissi Stewart also credits the Mediterranean Diet with keeping her young. “My parents were immigrants from Greece. We grew up eating the Mediterranean Diet before it was popular.”
She also believes in the power of “going with the flow,” and taking life as it comes. “Live day by day, week by week, and think good thoughts. I used to tell my students who were struggling with something hard, ‘Don’t give up on yourself. Don’t let anybody discourage you. Work at it and prove them wrong.’
“That’s what the professors at AIC told me,” said Raissi Stewart, adding, “My dad always told my sisters and me—there were five of us girls—that the number one priority in our lives should be education, then family, and then friends. And that’s how I’ve lived my life.”
-By Ellen Dooley
Archive photography courtesy of Mary Raissi Stewart