By Josh Shreckengost
The sports landscape of Armstrong County was irreparably altered on December 28, 2020 when longtime Ford City and Armstrong athletic director Denny Stewart passed away following a brief battle with COVID-19.
A longtime teacher, coach and administrator, Stewart dedicated his life to the Armstrong School District and its various athletic teams for over 40 years and was inducted into the Armstrong County Sports Hall of Fame in 2014 for his service.
When Kittanning and Ford City merged in 2015 to form Armstrong High School, senior high principal Jim Rummel knew exactly how he wanted the future of River Hawks athletics to be shaped. Rummel tapped Stewart and Kittanning athletic director Todd Harvey as co-athletic directors for the new high school and Armstrong found immediate success in several sports.
"I first met Denny (at Ford City) in 2003 and he was still a teacher then and served as the athletic director and the first time I saw him, I thought, 'Wow, this guy is impressive,'" Rummel said. "He was one of those guys who was just special. When the school board put me in charge of our athletic program here at Armstrong, I knew immediately that the best thing I could do was bring him and Todd Harvey together and we would work as one unit. It was the best decision I ever made."
When Rummel made the decision to pair Stewart and Harvey -- who had served as Kittanning's AD since 1998 -- to help guide the River Hawks' athletic program through its infancy, Harvey initially had questions about the logistics of it all. Those questions were quickly answered once he and Stewart began working together.
"We had gotten especially close the past five-and-a-half years that we've worked together at Armstrong and we had a great working relationship," Harvey said. "But my first thought was, 'How is this all going to work?' I was a bit skeptical, to be honest, but after about a month or so, Denny asked me, 'How do you think this is going?' and I told him I thought it was going well, that it was the start of something really special."
Stewart began his career as a junior high wrestling and football coach and was later instrumental in building Kittanning's wrestling program into one of the most formidable in the area. Wrestling was always Stewart's first love and during his time at the helm of both Kittanning and Armstrong Central, the teams produced 20 section champions and Kittanning's first state champion when Chamie Hooks took the 140-pound title in 1995.
Stewart filled many roles during his four decades in the school district and was also the driving force behind the formation of Kittanning's girls golf team in 1992. Golf was another sport which was near and dear to Stewart and he had a lifelong love affair with the game. Armstrong girls varsity basketball head coach Kirk Lorigan -- himself an avid golfer -- recalled the many rounds he shared with Stewart at the Kittanning Country Club.
"I had a long relationship with Denny, one that started as a junior in high school when I had him as a teacher," Lorigan said. "My relationship continued to grow with him throughout adulthood. He was always a really special guy. I played a lot of golf with Denny, ran into him quite a bit out at the country club. But obviously, my real relationship with him was through athletics and that especially grew here within the past five years."
Stewart took over the athletic director position at Ford City in 1997 and exercised his trademark work ethic and attention to detail to help the Sabers excel in athletics. While the programs he oversaw were successful at both Kittanning and Ford City, it was Stewart's steadfast commitment to his student-athletes which endeared him to generations of Armstrong County residents.
Brian Kovalovsky, the current Armstrong boys varsity basketball coach, worked with Stewart at Ford City and noted how little he had changed over the years. When Kovalovsky returned to coaching, he saw the same Stewart -- full of energy and wisdom -- just as he had years before while on the bench for the Sabers.
"It's such an honor and a privilege to know such a high-quality person and I think what I admired so much about Denny is how thorough he was," Kovalovsky said. "He was just so dedicated, you always knew you were in good hands. I think what it all goes back to is that Denny was all about the kids. He always tried to do what was best for the kids."
Stewart taught history and driver's education and while he retired from teaching and contemplated retiring from athletics, his love for the area's athletes and teams kept him coming back day after day. According to Harvey, the two would talk about Stewart's retirement every year, but every year, Stewart decided he still had plenty left to give.
"He had so much wisdom, so much knowledge about every situation," Harvey said. "He was such a great storyteller and had so many great stories about things that had happened in the district over the years. He's going to be immensely missed. I enjoyed every day of it, it was a wonderful experience. I just wished we could have gone on together for a few more years."