by Jenny Gregory
“I had better parents than anyone in this world,” shared India Stewart, as she reminisced of her childhood. Growing up in the 1950’s in rural Georgia, times were much simpler. Back on those hot summer days, youngsters like Stewart found themselves jumping into the local river to cool down, playing hopscotch with friends while sipping on a cold glass of Coca-Cola and trying to be the first to taste Mom’s fresh peach cobbler as it cooled off in the windowsill.
For Stewart, the trek from adolescence to adulthood was filled with challenges, heartache, family, triumph and a story of true love.
Born and raised
“I was born in Toccoa in 1941,” Stewart said. “I was the oldest of 3 girls. Daddy was a carpenter and worked in the steel plant, and Mama was a housewife.”
“Being the oldest was so much fun,” Stewart continued. “I had a sister who was 17 years younger and I often would feel like I was her mother.”
“One of my most cherished memories was at 12 years old. It was at a revival at Carnes Creek Baptist Church.” Stewart told the story as she remembered walking that church aisle in April of 1953 with 16 other individuals who gave their lives to Christ and then baptized in an outside pool. She exclaimed: “When I was saved, I was saved forever!”
As she continued to recollect on the stories of her past, her eyes lit up. It was easy to see these moments had made an impact on her life and held a special place in her heart.
One of those most treasured memories was that of her parents. “God gave me two of the finest parents in the world. Had He not, I would not be walking today.”
With that, Stewart began to share how her life abruptly changed.
“I was just 13 years old and just beginning my teenage years when I was diagnosed with polio.”
“It was a very tragic thing for my family,” Stewart recounted, as the laughter of the lighthearted conversation faded into a more serious tone.
“The polio vaccine had just come to Toccoa in a sugar cube for those twelve years old and under. I watched my sister while she received the vaccine. I missed it by one year.”
Coping with the diagnosis
“Only two people in Toccoa had been diagnosed with polio in 1955: myself being one. It was a new thing. It made the papers and everyone was worried, including my parents.”
“In the beginning, it wasn’t something that concerned me. At 13, you don’t really understand the significance of something that would possibly make such changes in your life.”
Stewart went on to share how the early stages of her polio diagnosis were upsetting at times. While the illness only affected her muscle use and some of her lung function, people were skeptical and believed it to be transmissible. As she shared, it was as if she began to relive the humility she went through in her early stages of polio.
“You know, it was a time when they closed swimming pools and things like that. I even had a friend who cried for two months because she was afraid she would catch [the disease] from me.”
There was a disappointment and hurt in her voice as she explained the letdowns she experienced in those early years.
“I remember when they first diagnosed me, they put me in this little glass cubicle and cut my long red hair. They took my Sunday school book and Bible and put it all in a plastic bag and burned it.”
She stated, “They treated me like I had some sort of plague.”
A fresh start in Warm Springs
Stewart shared that her father made the decision to pick up the family and move to Warm Springs, Ga. Now wheelchair bound, he knew she needed the best care, and the Warm Springs Rehabilitation Center for poliomyelitis patients was the perfect place to receive it. This would be the place the Stewart’s would call home for the next two years.
The center had been made famous by its founder and 32nd United States President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The former President himself was diagnosed with polio and in 1927, became paralyzed from the waist down.
Warm Springs was initially a resort for people belonging to higher society in the early 1900s. The resort had two huge pools that stayed filled by the local spring. After finding out that the water potentially helped heal ailments from polio, Roosevelt visited the resort. He believed it made a difference in his healing process, which helped give him strength to resume his political career.
In 1926, Roosevelt bought the property, and through his efforts, created the Warm Springs Foundation. For many years, this was the only hospital devoted to poliomyelitis patients around the world. For Stewart and many others, it was a place that brought healing at a time when some didn’t have hope.
Despite the difficulties, Stewart strived to overcome the obstacles placed before her. “When the doctor said I couldn’t go back to school, I was devastated.”
She said: “I remember the people of Carnes Creek Baptist Church who sent me homemade cards and made sure that I had tutors to help me finish high school. I will never forget the love they showed my family and me.”
Warm Springs had been an expensive rehabilitation center for the humble family. Stewart remembered, “I became a poster child for the March of Dimes Foundation
in order for us to acquire funds and for me to continue to be a patient at the facility. The local newspaper had my picture with the caption ‘1,000 a step.’ That’s when I took my first four steps with my braces.”
“I also had to participate in trial tests and procedures to receive the necessary funds to stay at the Foundation,” Stewart explained. “They had young people who were planning to become nurses and doctors working there, and I remember laying on a stretcher while the lead doctor would direct the students to poke and prod at parts of my body. I was even part of an experimental surgery that helped with the movement of my legs, and it actually helped! These surgeries, therapies, and treatments were so expensive that had it not been for the March of Dimes, I would definitely still be in my wheelchair.”
During that time, Stewart spent most of her free time doing what she loved doing: reading. It was a passion that helped her escape the hospital visits, therapy sessions and the feeling of being different. “I loved to read. I would read and read and read, especially my Bible. I would read my Bible and spend time in prayer.”
“You know, it was hard not being able to do some of the things that other children could do,” Stewart remembered. “But boy, the neat people I met at Warm Springs from around the world were just exciting. I even got to stay in the room that President Roosevelt stayed in while he was there.”
One particular friend that she met was a polio patient from Cuba. “We stayed in the same room,” Stewart said. “She spoke Spanish, and I spoke English. We could not communicate with each other and we did all kinds of motions. We had the most fun trying to guess what the other was saying.” Stewart laughed and even made a small hand gesture as if she was still a teenager trying to decipher what the young Cuban girl was saying.
“I learned a lot from her, and she learned a lot from me.” Stewart explained. “I was not from a wealthy family and she was from a very wealthy family, and she carried me back to Cuba with her where I spent the summer. I’d never been on an airplane and I was so excited. My Cuban friend’s house was so large, I never saw it all. It was confiscated and used as a government headquarters after the family escaped Cuba just a year later than my stay. While there, I stood on the same grounds and watched as Fidel Castro talked to his brother, Rual. There were many soldiers around and, of course, I could not understand them.”
Those who teach, teach
Years went by, and Stewart began her undergraduate degree at Piedmont College. She later attended the University of Georgia, and finally finished her college years at Clemson University in South Carolina.
Stewart later met her husband on a blind date. “Don has taken care of me since the day I met him,” she said. It was evident that this love story was her favorite memory to share. “Boy, I tell you, he is so attentive to my every need, and just so easy to love.”
They knew going into the marriage Stewart could most likely not have children. After adopting their first child, Stewart said, “When she was just three days old, I found out I was pregnant!” She would eventually have three more children and eight grandchildren.
In the mix of a marriage and starting her family, Stewart taught English at Stephens County High School and spent several years as school librarian along with night classes at the (then) Truett-McConnell Junior College campus in Toccoa, Ga.
“I love everything about Truett McConnell,” she exclaimed. “Being able to talk about my faith when teaching is my favorite thing. I have enjoyed teaching the upper level classes and even got the privilege of writing the curriculum for two of the classes. Boy, that was fun.”
When the Toccoa campus closed, it was 5 years before Stewart found herself at the Cleveland campus. “I tell you, I hated every single minute when I wasn’t teaching at Truett McConnell. I missed it so much.”
When an English position opened, Stewart quickly applied and began teaching at the place God had called her so many years ago. Today, Stewart teaches online English classes, but even through the computer, she has made a lasting impact on the lives of her students.
Former ACCEL student and current TMU student, Corley Humphrey, can attest to
the kindness of such an incredible teacher. “Ms. India helped me improve my writing ability and my understanding of different aspects of literature, Humphrey stated. “She was most helpful when I was trying to decide where to go to college.”
“I had decided that I wanted to major in English and eventually become a professor,” Humphrey said, “but I was stuck in between two colleges. Ms. India and I already had a good system of communication, so I emailed her and asked for advice. Because of her encouragement, she played a pivotal part in my decision to go to Truett McConnell. I can only hope that I will be as caring and passionate as she is when I become a professor someday.”
Overcoming all odds
It’s evident in the Stewart home that family is close to their hearts. As Stewart held the hand of her husband of 52 years, she briefly spoke of how each rock used to create the foundation of their fireplace held a memory of family time by the lake.
The bookshelves held family photos and the walls were adorned with mounted fish caught by the family. An old classic car waited in the garage, and if it could talk, the automobile would probably be brimming with its own memories of the family.
Stewart shared that even the people of TMU were a part of her family. “Even as an online teacher,” she said, “I am able to make connections with my students. We get to talk through email and I even had a student ask me questions about what being a Christian was, and I got to share my faith with him.”
Maria Kayondo, a TMU student and nursing major shared of not only how gracious Stewart had been, but that at the end of each email Kayondo received, Stewart would end with: “I am praying for you.”
“To me,” Kayondo shared, “those words spoke a lot to me because [she] had never met me but she genuinely cared about me. I hope to meet her one day and thank her in person. What a blessing she has been to me!”
When asked how long she would continue to work at TMU, Stewart said with a grin, “As long as they let me.”
“You know, I hope the young students enjoy their college experience, communicate, don’t just text, don’t lose their integrity and do their best.”
Stewart moved to the edge of her seat and as she laced her fingers together, she insisted, “Write everything down. Oh, the stories I could remember from my students if I had just kept a journal. And I think everyone should listen to the older people. Let them tell you their stories. They have so much to share.”
As humbly as she could, Stewart praised God for where He had brought her. She was wheelchair bound at a young age, and now, with the help of her leg braces, she is able to walk a half mile every single day and continues to teach college courses at almost 75 years old.
“My daddy always pushed me to do my best. I remember my doctor had several sheets with exercises on them and I was told to do 10 sets of each. My Daddy said, ‘Sis,’ because that’s what he would call me. He’d say ‘Sis, if it’s good for you 10, it’s good for you 20.’”
Ms. India Stewart spent her life overcoming obstacles, and her days have unfolded into an inspiring story.
“I know I am where I am today because of my faith in the Lord, and because my parents taught me to do my best.”
Jenny Gregory is the Content Manager at TMU.Return to News Archive