Cecil Steward’s Tireless Pursuit of a Better World

David Ochsner

In the thirty-plus years I knew Cecil Steward it never occurred to me that one day he would leave us. It seemed nothing could stop him in his tireless pursuit of a more sustainable world.

On a given day you might find him at his EcoStore in Lincoln, where thousands of tons of construction materials were diverted from waste streams for recycling and reuse. But just as likely he might be in Beijing or Guangzhou, advising on the sustainable construction of a skyscraper or a massive planned city. There wasn’t a place on earth Cecil hadn’t visited, it seemed, but the transplanted Texan called Nebraska home.

The first dean of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s College of Architecture, he was also the nation’s youngest dean of architecture when he took up the post in 1973. When I joined UNL’s public relations team in 1989, one of my first stops was Architecture Hall, a beloved landmark Cecil had saved from the wrecking ball. I was there to admire the building, but I also hoped to talk architecture with the Dean. What I got instead was a revelation.

Like many at the time I saw architecture as an aesthetic pursuit; great buildings created by great architects. But what good is a building, Cecil asked, if it doesn’t connect to the surrounding community, if it isolates rather than unites, if its construction and operation wastes precious resources?

To Cecil, great architecture required more than a marriage of art, engineering and technology. It required a knowledge and appreciation of history, culture, economics, public policy, sociology, psychology, and ecology. It was about watersheds and food systems that supported healthy and vibrant communities, walkable places where everyone could have access to a quality life. It was also about justice: there was simply no excuse for the richest nation on earth to ignore the needs of people living on the margins.

Contemplating America’s responses in times of disaster, he observed, “We think we are the most advanced nation in the world at harnessing the resources of science and technology, but our systems are often based on independence, competition, political power, short-term thinking, and entrenched silos, while resiliency from these disasters requires collaboration, interdependence and interdisciplinary partnerships. The American Dream has not been constructed on these principles.”

Today it is hard to find a corporation that doesn’t tout sustainability credentials or LEED-rated buildings, but when Cecil launched the Joslyn Castle Institute for Sustainable Communities in Omaha in 1996, the green building movement was in its infancy, and few were acquainted with sustainability—the promotion of human systems in balance with the natural environment.

As national president of the American Institute of Architects from 1991 to 1992—AIA’s first academic leader—Cecil not only urged the profession to embrace sustainable practices, he also built an international network of architects, planners, policymakers and others who advanced the cause of sustainability in incalculable ways.

That network included urban specialist and UN-Habitat veteran Nicholas You, who introduced Cecil to places in the world far and wide, and in turn Cecil introduced You and many other leading thinkers to Lincoln and Omaha. You recalled Cecil as “a gentleman, a true intellect, and a person of unquestionable integrity—qualities that are increasingly difficult to find amongst our leaders today.”

True to Cecil’s nature, just hours before his passing on Nov. 2, 2021, at age 87, he was planning to participate on a jury in China for the Guangzhou Award for Urban Innovation. This is how he was, never complaining about his health or life’s inevitable aches and pains. Late in life he underwent operations on both knees, because nothing was going to stop him from getting on with his work. He grudgingly used a walking stick during that time, always rising to greet whoever stopped by for a meeting or a chat over a finger or two of Scotch. No complaints, no regrets, just a stubborn Scotsman who only knew one direction: forward.

Age became opportunity when at 85 Cecil led the steering committee for the World Urban Campaign’s Constituency on Older Persons. He said he would advocate for seniors at the twilight years of community life by developing sustainable policies that look backward, in a sense, toward birth and regeneration.

Regeneration indeed. Cecil rose early each and every day thinking about how to make life better for the rest of us, gathering countless people from all walks of life—across Nebraska and around the world—to work toward the greater good.

The work continues, and thanks to Cecil, it will live on for generations to come. So as it turns out, he really didn’t leave us. His work to build a sustainable world remains an enormous task, and I know he’d appreciate a helping hand.

 

David Ochsner was a long-standing board member at the Joslyn Institute for Sustainable Communities. He is currently vice-president for integrated communications at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.