Steward retiring from Fort Hays State

Kent Steward

By Diane Gasper-O'Brien
University Relations and Marketing
HAYS, Kan. -- Kent Steward is retiring on March 31, and that's all he would like to be said about the matter.

In fact, if he had his way, Steward would walk out the door of his office on the second floor of Fort Hays State University's Sheridan Hall without anyone aware of his departure.

After nearly 20 years of living in the public eye as director of University Relations, doing his best at telling the city, the state, the region just how great Fort Hays State is, Steward is ready to head in a different direction. Slow down. Do things on his own time.

Oh, there's a list of things to be done. Steward's wife, Deb, will continue to work and hopes her husband can tackle a home project or two during the day.

Clean the garage. Tend to his garden. Play golf. Throw in a poker game or two. But now he will be able to do all of the aforementioned, and most everything else for that matter, when he wants to.

His life will never be the same. Neither will the Office of University Relations.

A behind-the-scenes guy whose job was introducing and promoting FHSU leaders such as President Mirta M. Martin and former president Edward H. Hammond, Steward still left his mark on Fort Hays State - and the city of Hays.

He taught classes at FHSU. He served on multiple committees and boards, both on campus and in the city of Hays.

A firm believer in civic involvement, Steward served two different terms on the Hays City Commission, including stints as mayor. One of his crowning moments was writing the application that led to the designation of Hays as an All-American City in 1996.

That was right about the time that Bob Lowen, the university's long-time public relations director, was getting ready to retire.

Steward, after 10 years as managing editor at The Hays Daily News, was working as manager of corporate communications at Sunflower Electric Power Corporation in Hays.

Hammond was seeking a seamless transition for Lowen's replacement. He wanted an assistant director to work under Lowen for a few months to learn the ropes before Lowen retired and approached Steward about applying.

Steward faced a situation which most people only dream of -- the choice between two very appealing jobs.

"Sunflower was the best job I'd ever had at that point in my life," he said. "I had no intentions of leaving there. I was flattered enough by Ed Hammond wanting me to apply (at FHSU) that I decided to do that."

Hammond said he "did some checking before we reached out to him," and he liked what he found out.

"He was a superb writer and had experience managing people," Hammond said. "We felt he had the skill set to be successful in the position, and on top of that, he was very much plugged into the community. He had relationships that could be important to the university."

Steward made the cut of three finalists and then had a tough decisions to make.

"I had never imagined I'd have such a difficult choice," said Steward, who ultimately decided on the FHSU job and began a 17-year relationship with Hammond before Hammond stepped down from his presidency in June 2014.

A fan of several sports teams, Steward was true to the Black and Gold, and family is a big part of his life. Photographs of his family -- including his two grandchildren, 6-year-old Finnegan and 7-month-old Evelyn -- were scattered around his office.

No matter what might be going on in his life, ask him about his granddaughter and he'll flash a big grin as he searches for a photo on his laptop. His eyes sparkle when talking about his grandson, who he affectionately calls Finn.

Martin, the first woman president at FHSU, succeeded Hammond, and after some reorganization of some departments, Steward inherited yet another title -- executive director of University Relations and Marketing.

Martin said Steward took on the added responsibilities without skipping a beat.

"Kent provided the much needed relationship to bridge my knowledge of the university and of the state," Martin said. "He knows everyone, and everyone knows him. What an incredible gift to have him at my side."

"In addition to being the voice of the university for 20 years, Kent has been a trusted and loyal advisor," Martin added. "He is always mindful to report our excellence. He has been an incredible 'sounding board' for me. He was the rock of Fort Hays State University, and I and the university will miss him dearly. He is, and he always will be, a part of the Tiger family."

Besides his staff, Steward will be missed by people with whom he shared the same floor at Sheridan Hall.

"I'd pass him in the hallways, and we would bump into each other several times a week," said Larry Getty, director of budget and planning whose office is just a few feet down the hallway from University Relations. "I'm going to miss that."

The office of Dan Rice, director of career services, also is on second floor of Sheridan but on the opposite side of the building. That didn't prevent Rice from moseying down to visit Steward on his breaks to discuss "just about anything under the sun," Rice said.

"Everything from sports to politics to community activities," Rice added. "I'm going to miss that, going to miss Kent."

As part of the university reorganization, Lisa Karlin will take over Steward's position. She has worked at FHSU since 1992, most recently as director of marketing and special assistant to the president.

Karlin has worked closely with Steward on various projects over the years and feels that her long-time association with Steward will be beneficial in her transition to her new responsibilities.

"Kent has been a friend and mentor to me for almost two decades," Karlin said. "That in itself has helped make the transition a little easier."

Steward shakes his head when asked about his job, one where he has witnessed a lot of changes since he came to campus.

"I'm not real excited to be quoted extensively in this story," he said. "I've spent nearly 20 years trying to put the spotlight on the president and other people at the university who have done commendable things, so it goes against my nature to brag on what I've done."

That's OK. That's for others to do, especially his children and grandchildren.

His oldest son, Jake, and his family live in Hatfield, Mass., and youngest son Josh and his family live in Potomac Falls, Va. Both are more than 20 hours from Hays.

No matter. Somehow, some way, Steward will find a way to visit with them as often as he can because after March 31 he will have a new role -- retired.

With all those titles -- editor, director, commissioner, mayor, mentor -- soon to be part of his past, Steward can look forward to enjoying his favorite one: Grandpa.

Finn and Evelyn are two very lucky children.

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