To be “Dr. Johnny” on the campus of the Stewart Home School is to be a rock star.
As the doctor, 64, ambles around campus, he receives hugs, hand slaps and general jubilation from those who surround him — the 340 students of the private school, who have a range of conditions that include seizure disorders, intellectual disabilities and psychiatric conditions that have brought them into the school’s full-time care.
They come from all over the United States. They come from abroad. One man stayed more than 80 years.
Dr. John Stewart has retired from his surgical practice in Lexington after more than 30 years to work full time with students at the school where he and his siblings grew up as the son of a man who was at the school more than 50 years. The current John Stewart is the school’s chairman and medical director.
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His last day with Fayette Surgical Associates, where he was working 80-plus hour weeks, was Dec. 30; his last surgery, performed with his wife, ob/gyn Dr. Magdalene Karon, on Dec. 28. He started full time with the Stewart school on Jan. 2, where he hopes to work 40 to 50 hours a week for perhaps the next 20 years.
The Stewart Home School’s origins were in the hotel and spa business in the early 19th century in a pre-aviation world where travelers came to take the water and enjoy the rolling Bluegrass scenery. The site itself is like a postcard of bucolic Kentucky, with trees dotting the undulating landscape and precisely tended lawns.
The main building was designed by architect Gideon Shryock, who also designed the old Kentucky State House. Around the campus are also individually named “houses” for residents who may, say, take joy in living in “Camelot.”
The site housed a military academy before becoming the Stewart School.
Stewart’s great-great-grandfather, Dr. John Quincy Adams Stewart, was a failed gold miner who later got his medical degree. Having seen the limited opportunities available to those with intellectual disabilities after having served as the superintendent of the Kentucky Institute for the Education and Training of Feeble-minded Children, Stewart founded the Stewart Home & School.
Dr. John Poague Stewart, the current Dr. Stewart’s great-grandfather, succeeded him. Then came John Dowling Stewart, then Dr. John Poague Stewart II, Frankfort’s first radiologist, who led the school for 58 years. John Poague Stewart II died in June, 2014; his widow, Milly, still lives on the school campus.
John Poague Stewart’s last telephone call before he died was about a school maintenance matter.
The current John Stewart, along with his two younger sisters Jean and Catherine and younger brother Charles, were raised at the school.
Stewart said that he cut grass, worked in the then-school dairy and worked for a builder at the school. Now, he’s taking care of residents, some of whom he grew up with, and planning for a 5,000 square foot expansion that will give the school’s infirmary a modern building.
When he started practicing in 1984, Stewart worked in a Monday evening clinic and did administrative work from 7-10 p.m. During 2016, he was there 3 1/2 days a week. Now Stewart co-manages the school’s operations as chairman with his brother-in-law Barry Banker.
Sandra Bell, the school’s director, said that Stewart “has an unbelievable mind. It’s amazing to us to just listen to how much information he has.”
Bell has been at the school for 47 years and was hired by Stewart’s father, Dr. John P. Stewart II. She said the senior Stewart watched his son’s developing career from afar, “always hoping and praying that it would bring him back here, in Kentucky, back to the school.”
Having the younger Stewart at the school on a daily basis “has given us this new opportunity to get to know him and have him know everybody here so much better, too.”
Although the school has no age limits, the most common point of entry is 18 and over, Stewart said. Students have private rooms, a well-stocked exercise room, an equine program, access to events and competitions and transportation to church and temple.
The school employs 135 full- and part-time workers.
Their residents’ physical conditions can be complicated: More than 100 students have some kind of seizure disorder, and more than 150 a psychiatric issue. That makes tracking and dispensing medication a critical and precise daily mission.
“We have to be efficient and good,” Stewart said. “… We want to be a facility that’s the best on the planet.”
For the students, many of whom have endured some isolation before their arrival at the Stewart school, “It provides an environment among peers. Here, you’re with their world. They can be leaders within their group, they can be contributors.”