2005: Tracey Stewart takes the stand

By Jeff Barr

Orlando, Fla.

Tracey Stewart filled an Orange County courtroom with emotion May 27, offering heartfelt memories of life with her late husband, Payne.

“I’ll miss growing old with him,” she said. “We were supposed to do that together.”

A witness in her family’s ongoing civil trial against Learjet, Tracey Stewart capped four weeks of plaintiff testimony. She offered emotional rememberances of her late husband, who was killed along with five others Oct. 25, 1999, when the chartered jet in which they were flying lost cabin pressure and crashed into an Aberdeen, S.D., pasture. The family of Payne Stewart’s agent, Robert Fraley, who also was killed in the crash, is a co-plaintiff.

Following Tracey Stewart’s tearful testimony, the families’ attorneys rested their case. Orange Circuit Judge Jay Cohen then called a recess until May 31, when attorneys for Learjet – the aircraft’s manufacturer – were to begin presenting their case. Defense testimony was expected to take two weeks.

Attorneys for Learjet will be hard-pressed to match the emotion put forth when Tracey Stewart took the stand.

“He used to tell me, ‘We’re so lucky, we have so much love in our lives,’ ” said the 45-year-old widow. “And now he’s not coming back.”

Attorneys for the Stewart and Fraley families spent the first four weeks of the trial presenting a case that blames a faulty valve adapter for the crash.

If the jury of nine women concurs, Learjet could be obligated to compensate the families for lost earnings, which plaintiffs estimate to be as much as $200 million.

Learjet blames inadequate pilot training and improper maintenance for the accident.

The trial has been a blend of highly technical testimony and gut-wrenching emotion. Payne Stewart’s daughter, Chelsea, 19, a political-science major at Clemson University, and son, Aaron, 16, testified earlier about memories of the day their father died, and of life without him.

“I just remember screaming at the top of my lungs,” Chelsea Stewart said. “I couldn’t understand why this was happening.” Chelsea said she slept in her parents’ bed that night, “because his pillow smelled like him.”

“Now that he’s not there, it’s not complete,” Aaron Stewart told jurors. “We’re missing someone. Every day is a struggle, but we try to get through it.”

When Tracey Stewart testified as the final plaintiff witness, it was equally moving. She fought through tears when she recalled telling her children that their father was dead: “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I took them up to our bedroom, told them the plane had crashed, and just grabbed them both and held them while they screamed and cried.”

For much of her time on the stand, however, Tracey Stewart remained quietly composed. She smiled and gently laughed as she remembered meeting her future husband at the Malaysia Open in 1980 – when he was a fledgling golfer struggling to make a living on the Asian Tour.

Tracey Stewart blushed when telling of her first impression of Payne.

“I remember thinking he was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” said Stewart, who lived in her native Australia at the time and was in Malaysia to watch her brother, Michael Ferguson, compete in the tournament.

As she testified, jury members had the opportunity to view an array of 31 oversized photographs arranged in collages on four easels. Some showed Payne Stewart with Tracey, Chelsea and Aaron. Others showed Stewart at various stages of his career – playing table tennis with Tiger Woods to ease tension during the 1999 Ryder Cup; at White House visits with Presidents Bush and Clinton; chatting with Bob Hope; and jamming on the harmonica with Jake Trout and the Flounders.

Attorneys for Learjet earlier had objected to the display when the jury was not in the courtroom, calling the photographs “irrelevant to the case and highly prejudicial.” Judge Cohen overruled the objection, and the tribute to Stewart was allowed to remain.

The images of fame and glory stood in contrast to Stewart, p10 many of the remembrances related by Tracey Stewart on the stand. Before Payne Stewart was laughing with legends and posing with presidents, he was getting by on $30,000 that six of his father’s friends put up to keep him going in the early days.

He earned his PGA Tour card during the 1982 season, making the most important move toward securing playing privileges when he wrested his first victory in the Quad Cities Open. But before that triumph in July came many uncertain moments.

“We went three months without getting into a tournament,” Tracey recalled. “He was trying to Monday qualify – they called us ‘rabbits,’ hopping from tournament to tournament – and we weren’t having much luck.”

Stewart and his new bride traveled in a Pontiac Grand Prix, withdrawing $1,000 a week from the $30,000 cache provided by his backers. He Monday qualified for the first time in 1982 at Doral, only to miss the cut. He cashed his first PGA Tour check two weeks later at the Honda Inverrary Classic in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“I always believed he would make it,” Tracey Stewart said. “But, honestly, it really didn’t matter. We were young. We were in love. And we were together.”

When Stewart won the Quad Cities Open later that year, it was crucial to his career because it meant the brutal pressure of Monday qualifying no longer was a concern. But Tracey Stewart remembered a more important reason the Quad Cities triumph was so special to her husband.

“It was the only time his father saw him win,” she said.

Payne’s father, Bill, had made the trip to Coal Valley, Ill., from his Springfield, Mo., home.Bill Stewart died of cancer on March 14, 1985, shortly after learning that Tracey Stewart was pregnant with Chelsea. Two years later, after capturing the 1987 Bay Hill Invitational, Payne Stewart donated the winner’s check to Florida Hospital Circle of Friends, a group that housed family members of cancer patients in treatment. He made the donation in memory of his father.

These were the moments Tracey Stewart remembered in open court. Private memories bestowed upon public record.

She talked of anonymous days on Tour when, to stay occupied, she shagged balls for her husband. When all around were strangers, she rooted for him as he labored to make ends meet. She spoke of the first time Lee Trevino saw Payne Stewart in knickers, a lavender pair that drew Trevino darts throughout their round.

She remembered the monumental high of her husband’s victory at the 1999 U.S. Open, and the unspeakable low when he died four months later.

It was the final memory that rushed tears to Tracey Stewart, at least two jury members and many in the Orlando courtroom.

“Payne made pancakes for the children, then walked us out to the car to say goodbye,” the widow remembered. “I got in the car, and Payne was waving and smiling.

“He was waving and blowing kisses the last time I saw him.”

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