Stewart Abercrombie – A Tribute


Stewart was someone with presence. Everyone was conscious of him when he was in a room. He was a man of passion and strong opinions – he had no neutral views. He channelled that passion with great self-discipline in his professional life, enabling him to push through projects and deliver complex engineering assignments in a range of challenging situations. 


In retirement, he became frustrated when groups and organisations to which he belonged lacked his drive and passion. Stewart had no guile about him, he was forceful and direct in his views and would disagree openly and vehemently with people on matters about which he felt strongly.  People may have disagreed with his views or the force with which he expressed them – but he never lost people’s acceptance and he held the respect of many.


Stewart was the product of, and always remained spiritually and emotionally connected to, the wide open spaces of the South African mountains and veldt.  Sometimes in later years it seemed he needed more space than small village life and its preoccupations afforded, that something inside him was longing to break out into a broader place.  Yet he found ways of engaging with space and freedom he needed through his love of the Scottish landscape and the regular outings with his beloved Sylvia and in the maintenance of habits of solitude and his lifelong practice of rising and retiring with the sun: Stewart’s bodyclock always ran to a South African rhythm.


The measure of Stewart’s character is probably best gauged from how he responded to increasing confinement in his last years.  Following a stroke, he spent many frustrating months away from home in hospital, his difficulties compounded by anxiety after Sylvia became ill and was hospitalised some distance away.  His world was constricting and his control over it diminished.  With no physical outlet for his immense inner drive, his inner life flourished in many ways.  He tried to take to heart the counsel of the people who cared for him and came to see him; he made efforts with things he found difficult, he struggled and found victories in adapting to the changes in his condition and circumstances. He won the respect and admiration visitors who saw what he had to contend with and how hard and courageously he was working, sometimes against all his natural instincts to adapt.


Stewart’s huge presence and forcefulness often blinded people to the essence of his nature.  He was a man of quiet but unshakeable loyalty.  He possessed that increasingly rare quality of honour – he kept his promises and his word.  His inner yearning for wider spaces shaped his dealings with people – he wanted more for people he cared about, he wanted bigger things for them, he wanted them to flourish and exceed their own expectations. It could make him demanding and seem hard to please, but the impulse was born of passionate caring.


The same passionate longing infused his spiritual quest.  Stewart had a true sense of the “otherness” of God.  While had strong and well-articulated opinions on the mechanics of religion and its institutions, Stewart was quietly shy about his deepest spiritual yearnings and experiences.  When he connected with these he enjoyed true freedom, the kind that does not come from tramping through the wide open spaces but from being still in the endlessness of the Infinite and the Eternal. 


In matters of faith, Stewart was aware of being in alien territory, where different rules operated and so sometimes he moved cautiously.  Yet when he realised that something was right or true, at an instinctive, faith-led level, he never wavered for a second and embraced it with all his passion and force.  He knew from the moment he set eyes on Sylvia that she was God’s gift of a wife for his latter years and almost immediately he sat down and wrote a letter asking her to marry this virtual stranger she’d just met.  When Stewart knew something was right, he pursued it relentlessly and impatiently and in this instance the postal service was never going to be swift enough: as soon as he had posted the letter, he expedited matters by immediately phoning Sylvia to tell her what was in it!


For someone so vociferous on so many topics, Stewart was remarkably humble and self-effacing about his strongest achievements and about the extent of his considerable generosity.  He worked tirelessly in his beloved Zululand encouraging better quality educational experiences for the black community. He was deeply loyal to his employees, ensuring their security and generously supporting their welfare and that of their families long after he had left South Africa.  In his passion for justice and in his fatherly care, he reflected his belief in and commitment to his heavenly Father.


In the last years of his life as his health failed, Stewart often remarked he was “in God’s waiting room”.  In the last days of his life, his body weary, his sight having failed, his passionate longing was for “home”.  More than for a return to his beloved Newport house or to the lush uplands or vast searing plains of his African homeland, this was a yearning for the infinite and perfect freedom of completeness in Christ. For Stewart, the work is now done, the pain and weariness of waiting is over.  He is exploring lands more vast, more awesomely beautiful and inviting than even his earthly beloved country, at peace but active, curiously checking everything out and blissfully happy. He is home.