SIKESTON -- Even though Phyllis Stewart has been gone a little over a year, she's still very much a part of the lives of those she left behind. The well-known nursing instructor died unexpectedly in May 2001, but she continues to teach the old saying that laughter is the best medicine.
"Phyllis' sense of humor was the best thing about her," longtime friend Karen Hinze of Sikeston recalled. "She could always find humor to approach things."
Stewart and Hinze began their friendship in 1982 when they attended nursing school together. They later went on to work together in obstetrics nursing.
Stewart began instructing nursing at Three Rivers Community College in 1997. After persuasion from Stewart, Hinze soon followed her friend's suggestion and now teaches nursing classes at the Sikeston Area Higher Education Center.
"Her humor was so good for me," Hinze said. "I'm a serious person, and she always lightened me up, especially when we first met. We grew and matured together over the years."
According to Hinze, Stewart always had a story to tell. Hinze recalled one, of many, examples when Stewart's humor paid off. "When we started working with medicines, it really worried us because meds can mean life and death," Hinze said. "Each med had its own abbreviation. Phyllis came across one that said N-O-W and didn't know what it meant. Phyllis asked the instructor, 'Well what in the world does that mean?' The instructor said, 'Now.'
Hinze continued: "A lot of people, like me, would have embarrassed or mortified by that. But Phyllis turned it into something useful and funny. She used her experiences to teach others that you can't know everything right away. She always used her experiences in the classroom."
Stewart, a Sikeston native and former employee at Missouri Delta Medical Center, was 50 years old when she died from a pulmonary embolism on May 31, 2001, Karen Dockins, Stewart's sister, said.
"Anyone who knew Phyllis knows how passionate she was about her career, but they also know what a wonderful, fun-loving and caring person she was," Dockins said.
Stewart was honored during the pinning ceremony for graduate nurses at Three Rivers Community College May 17. Some of the students Stewart taught graduated that day, and even those who didn't know Stewart personally were touched by Stewart's memory.
"Believe me, there was not a dry eye in the house that day," Hinze said. "My students were telling me 'We didn't even know her, and we were all crying.'"
Stewart's husband, Lonnie, and their four children, Lonnie Stewart III, Nicole Stewart, Elissa Baker and Carrie Jackson, were all present at the ceremony to accept a certificate of recognition from Southeast Missouri State University, where Stewart was working to obtain her master's degree, and to observe the unveiling of an "Angel of Hope" memorial, a porcelain figurine of a nurse holding a baby, that hangs outside Stewart's former office on the TRCC campus.
"I miss her every day, and I'm very proud of her accomplishments and this recognition (from TRCC and SEMO)," Dockins said. "However, I'm even more proud to call her my sister."
Hinze said it didn't matter if Stewart was known as a teacher, mother, co-worker, or stranger -- everyone liked her. She's touched hundreds of people's lives, Hinze added. "Phyllis loved life and loved living it," Hinze said. "She was very dedicated to her family."
Since forming a friendship with Stewart, Hinze has learned to lighten up a lot more. Hinze's learned to be more open to change and a different perspective, she said. She thinks others have learned the same from Stewart.
"Phyllis very often marched to the beat of a different drum," Hinze said. "She had no fear in making a change."