Shelley Stewart is CEO of one of Alabama's largest advertising agencies. He came to fame in Alabama as the radio personality "Shelley the Playboy" and enjoyed a 50-year career in broadcasting. But his greatest achievement may be that he survived to reach adulthood at all. Greg Bass looks at a new biography of Stewart's remarkable life.
Born in 1934 to Heull "Slim" Stewart and Mattie C. Stewart, Shelley was the second of four children.
"I was told that I'd never live to be 16. I was told by people over and over and over again that Shelley, you ain't about nothin'. But that did not define me, says Stewart."
In August of 1939, Slim Stewart killed Mattie C. with an ax as 5-year-old Stewart and his brothers looked on. Charges were never filed. The boys' ages ranged from seven years to just five months old. They lived briefly with an aunt and uncle until the couple decided they didnât want them. So they drove the children to the ramshackle house where Slim Stewart lived with his girlfriend and left them on the curb.
"They stopped the car, set all of my stuff out on the side and says go root a hog or die poor. I was holding David and Bubba had Sam. We were just sitting down there and it was cold in December. It was cold," says Stewart.
The turbulent life Shelley Stewart describes is the subject of Don Keithâs book, Mattie C's Boy. The author says Stewart's mother has been a major influence throughout his life.
"Shelley maintains to this day that Mattie C still comes to him and talks to him and convinces him of the right way to go" says Keith.
After several months living on their father's back porch, Stewart's older brother Bubba ran away. Stewart soon followed. He wandered into downtown Birmingham and then over Red Mountain to the affluent suburb of Crestline Village. Near dark, Stewart walked past a horse barn where he thought he'd shelter for the night.
As he approached, Stewart says he heard a familiar voice. "That sounds like Bubba. And low and behold, one of the boys came out and it was Bubba, my brother. And I jumped out and said, Bubba, Bubba. And he said how'd you find me? And I said I don't know. So, I don't know how I found my brother."
While working at the barn Shelley befriended wealthy white businessman Clyde Smith who invited him to come stay in his basement so Stewart could be closer to his school. He lived with the Smith family for four years. In 1949, Stewart got a job as a school reporter at WBCO in Bessemer. He was a high school sophomore. At WBCO, he began to develop his radio personality.
After graduation, Shelley didn't get the college scholarship he expected. His principal told him he lacked the family support he needed for college. After a stint in the Air Force, he returned to Birmingham and in 1953 got a job at WEDR radio. Shelley the Playboy had arrived.
"Every morning he would open up the phone line and let kids check in from high schools all over town," says Keith. "And not only did he get Parker High School and Wynona High School but he also got Mountain Brook and Vestavia, which were segregated schools, because those kids loved what Shelley was doing, too."
Stewart says his young listeners didn't seem to care that he was black.
"These kids happen to be white and they were females. And I'm just calling them hey baby, hey sweetheart, hey darling. And white girls are talking about Shelley the Playboy," says Stewart.
His popularity with white kids did not sit well with everyone. In 1958, his radio station was knocked off the air when the broadcast tower was cut down. And he barely escaped with his life in 1960 when the Klan broke up one of his platter parties because they objected to white and black teenagers dancing in the same room. During the civil rights spring of 1963, Stewart joined other black radio personalities in broadcasting coded messages to young demonstrators telling them when and where marches would occur.
In 1967, Stewart became a silent partner in an ad agency. That agency evolved into O2 Ideas, the communications company he now heads. And in 2001, the State of Alabama prosecuted the two of the surviving Klansmen suspected of bombing the 16th Street Baptist Church. Prior to the trial of Tommy Blanton, a key witness suffered a stroke. The prosecutor asked Stewart to read the testimony of that witness.
"He put Shelley on the stand to read the testimony. There was not a dry eye in the courtroom," says Keith.
Stewart retired from broadcasting in 2002. While visiting his brother Sam in a California prison he learned that most of the inmates never finished school. In 2007, he started the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation. The group works to reduce the high school dropout rate. Today, the offices of O2 Ideas sit on land that was once Edgewood Lake where Stewart and his brother fished as children. In one sense, Stewart's life has come full circle.
"I think Shelley's legacy is going to be that regardless of our situation, regardless of our background, regardless of the discrimination and the abuse we might have suffered, if we educate ourselves and if we work hard, anything's possible," says Keith.
~Greg Bass, January 28, 2014