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Michelle Joerin Stewart '81

Class of 1981
United States Army
Distinguished Alumna 2016

Class of 1981 graduate Michelle Joerin Stewart remembers riding the bus from Detroit to Cranbrook with her friend Rob Edwards and spending a lot of time talking about the future. Edwards was focused on becoming a successful screenwriter. Stewart was not so certain about her path. All she knew was that she was a city kid who loved the outdoors and the challenges she had found in Cranbrook’s Lodestar program, where she pushed her own limits under the guidance of her mentor and Upper School physics teacher Frank Norton.
Thirty-five years later, Stewart will return to campus this June as the 2016 Distinguished Alumna, following an extraordinary military career that has seen her traverse the globe from the Philippines, Lithuania and Bosnia to Korea, Iraq and most recently, Afghanistan, as one of the highest ranking women in the United States Army Corps of Engineers.
In Iraq, she led efforts that included more than 450 projects ranging from the installation of wells in small villages to building schools, police stations, jails, administrative buildings and hospitals.
Following her deployment in Iraq, Stewart traveled to Afghanistan as a military insert with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), an agency founded by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 with the mission of ending “extreme global poverty and (enabling) resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential.”
While with USAID, “I went from construction to diplomacy,” says Stewart, adding that there was a push at the time to bring diplomatic and military aims together to help the people of Afghanistan following more than a decade of war.
In her role as chief of staff, Stewart worked on a number of different projects, from helping to bring electricity to rural villages to creating schools for midwives. “Because of cultural norms, the male doctors there cannot treat the women,” Stewart says. “We were teaching women how to care for other women who were pregnant and how to deliver the babies.” In just under a year, the infant mortality rate dropped by 25 percent.
The experience, Stewart says, “was completely different from anything I had ever done before. I felt like I’d found my calling.”
She returned home after nine months in time to see her youngest daughter graduate from high school and go off to college. Back in the United States, Stewart took on another massive project as chief engineer, building a $400 million “city in the woods” in Florida to house and train Army special operations soldiers. “I was able to work with the soldiers and design what they needed,” she says. That included barracks, training ranges, a medical center, underground infrastructure, a fire department and more.
When her husband, also a career Army officer, requested a transfer to the Pentagon, Stewart moved with him to Washington D.C. It was not long before she was invited to join the staff at Arlington National Cemetery as its chief engineer. Within months, she also was named the landmark’s chief of staff, doing both jobs at once.
It was a difficult time at the cemetery, which had been in a state of chaos since accusations of misconduct and mismanagement had surfaced years earlier. Stewart put her leadership skills to work, helping Arlington regain its stature as one of the country’s most important and respected landmark institutions.
While at Arlington, Stewart was given the task of designing a new system to secure and improve the functionality of the eternal flame that burns beside President Kennedy’s grave. “It only had one starter and there was no redundancy in the system,” Stewart says. “It had been through hurricanes and the hardware was wearing out. We had people standing by to light it if it went out in a storm. We modernized it, adding things like drainage for the electronics.”
Stewart says she felt honored to be able to improve and safeguard this symbol that has shone so brightly for more than 50 years. “I was certainly in love with some of JFK’s ideas, especially after my experiences in USAID,” she says.
Today, Stewart has enrolled in international relations courses with an eye toward perhaps one day writing a book about her experiences. “So much has happened to me and I didn’t fully understand the context,” she says. “I wanted to learn more about how my little piece of the world fit into the bigger whole.”
In looking back on her days at Cranbrook, Stewart sees a direct correlation between her experiences as a student, especially in Lodestar, and the career path she chose. “I was an inner city kid from Detroit,” she says. “I didn’t hike, but there I was repelling down from the tower at Cranbrook. Every year it was like a rite of passage. You’d climb up to the rail, lean back and take that first step. You had to willfully step off into oblivion and I learned that if you can will your instincts to subside, you can do some very amazing things.”
While her friend Rob Edwards did go on to that successful screenwriting career, Stewart too found the right path, one that has enriched and no doubt saved lives around the world. She looks forward to sharing some of those life lessons with the Cranbrook class of 2016 when she addresses the seniors at graduation. “I’m going to tell them to just start walking,” she says. “Do something that interests you. You don’t have to have a destination in mind. You just have to have the courage to walk through the doors that open up for you.”