Ron Stewart could have just retired following a three-decade career with the Independence Police Department.

Ron Stewart could have just retired following a three-decade career with the Independence Police Department.

He could have ridden his motorcycle across town, played music with his band and spent time with his wife, Marilyn.

Instead, his close friend, Independence City Council Member Bill Baker, suggested that Stewart run for City Council, saying the commitment would take only 15 to 20 hours per week.

But Baker had no idea his friend would run for three terms as the city’s mayor – and during a time of prominent change in Independence – so the joke between the two friends was always, “You lied, Bill!”

Shirley Baker, Bill’s wife and also a close friend of Stewart’s, recalled the memory following the death of former Independence mayor Rondell F. “Ron” Stewart late Friday afternoon, just four days after his 74th birthday.

On June 4, Stewart suffered a serious hemorrhagic stroke and suffered a second severe stroke on Aug. 17, one day after his birthday, according to a family statement.

Stewart’s memorial service will take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 31 at the Truman Memorial Building, 416 W. Maple Ave., a building that saw extensive renovation during Stewart’s tenure as mayor.

“We stood still in this city until Ron Stewart became mayor,” said Shirley Baker, calling the Truman Memorial Building renovation an example of Stewart’s dedication. “We were always a jewel with our history, but we’d just sort of died on the vine. He got in there and saw that things needed to be done – and away we went.”

While most residents might remember Stewart as Independence’s mayor, he also was a man of many passions, a man whose tenure saw change and a man who seemed to make others smile through his humor.

A man of passion

Above all else, including city government, Stewart placed his family as his No. 1 priority, according to former Independence City Manager Larry Blick, who served from August 1993 to April 2004. In January, Stewart celebrated 50 years of marriage with Marilyn and more than 100 relatives and friends. Stewart also was a father, a brother, a grandfather and a great-grandfather.

Stewart worked for 31 years with the Independence Police Department, retiring in September 1991 as a police captain. Following the end of his term as mayor in 2006, he often still rode his motorcycle across Independence to see what changes had taken place in his 12 years as mayor.

After serving as District 1 council member from 1992 to 1994, Stewart served as Independence’s mayor from 1994 to 2006.

For eight years, Stewart performed with Country by Choice, a band he formed. The group performed at Santa-Cali-Gon Days for several years and played mostly country music, though Stewart once said he also liked 1950s and 1960s rock musicians like Bobby Vinton and Buddy Holly.

Mayor Don Reimal, who served on the City Council with Stewart from 1994 to 2006, said Stewart often remarked how he enjoyed using his talent as a musician, especially while performing at retirement and convalescent homes.

“He would tell me from time to time that he would see people who were really incapacitated maybe move their finger to the beat of the music,” Reimal said. “He knew they were enjoying it, and that gave him a great deal of pleasure.”

A man of change

Stewart’s political leadership helped heal community divisions, especially among religious and racial groups, Blick said. Despite his successes, Blick said Stewart never claimed credit.“He welcomed everyone to the table to participate in decision making and in trying to find consensus on issues,” Blick said. “Ron was a true Independence boy, and people could identify with him as being one of them. He would listen to everyone. He was approachable, and he could relate to all groups.”

Throughout Stewart’s leadership as mayor, the city passed more than 10 sales tax issues, including streets and parks, stormwater management, tourism, fire and police. He also secured federal funding in 2005 for the extension of the Little Blue Parkway; saw the remodeling of the Truman Memorial Building and the opening of the Palmer Senior Center and Adventure Oasis Water Park; and secured the Bass Pro Shops for the Crackerneck Creek retail development project, among other accomplishments.   

“People always wanted those changes, but nobody really had the gumption to take the blows you have to take to get those things,” said Bill Baker, who served the Independence City Council for 12 years alongside Stewart, “but that didn’t bother Ron Stewart.”

The city received national recognition during Stewart’s tenure as mayor – in 2001, Independence earned designation as an All-America City and was recognized as a Kid Friendly City and as the 16th Best City (in the United States) for Women.

“He led a council that was hungry for positive change,” City Manager Robert Heacock said. “They had a tremendous amount of pride in Independence, and that was something that really stood out to me.”

Stewart helped improve public relations among Independence officials, the Missouri Legislature and the greater Kansas City area, Blick said. He also facilitated discussion among Eastern Jackson County communities and established good relations with Jackson County officials, according to Blick.  

“Ron clearly loved Independence, his community,” Blick said. “I think he was very proud of and pleased with somewhat of a renaissance that took place during his time as mayor.”

A man of humor

Shirley and Bill Baker own property and a campsite in Stover, Mo., back in the woods where no running water or sewer services are available. A group of friends, including Ron Stewart, often visited the site and built a big shelter so they wouldn’t have to cook under plastic tarps.

Shirley remembers Stewart building an old-fashioned outhouse in his driveway, and Stewart’s neighbors inquired, “Is that what I think it is?”

“‘I’m afraid the sewer taxes are getting so high I’m building this to put in my backyard,’” Stewart replied jokingly, according to Shirley Baker.

“He had a terrific sense of humor. When he and Bill Baker got together, nobody stopped laughing,” Shirley Baker said.

“It’s been a great blow to all of our hearts. We loved him so.”  

Heacock began his role as Independence’s assistant city manager in August 1998, and he remembers Stewart jokingly asking to see Heacock’s identification and remarking whether Heacock was old enough to drive. Calling Heacock “Bob” instead of his usual “Robert,” Stewart asked during Heacock’s first week in Independence, “Well, young man, that’s a pretty responsible job you have there. Are you going to be one of the people who swells or one who grows?”

“‘Just remember that – a lot people see these as important positions, but what’s really important is the work we do for the community and for the people,’” Heacock says of Stewart’s response. “That’s how he lived his life. He was a public servant.”