STUART — When Tom and Carol Brewster of Gorham, Maine, travel here for the Fourth of July celebration each year, they are fulfilling the wishes of Tom's father.
Before he died, Joe Brewster, a community banker, told his son to never forget to come back to his hometown.
So, the Brewsters make the trek halfway across the country to reunite with friends, family and neighbors for a multi-day event that involves hundreds of hours of volunteer preparation.
Tom Brewster admits that the community of 16,000 where he lives today could never pull off an event like the one in Stuart. Year after year, people of all ages work together to roll out five days of fun activities in this community of 600 people.
There's the Mid-States Rodeo, a street dance, an "Ag Olympics," where participants test their skill in challenges like rolling bales of hay.
There's also the Stuart Stock Car Races, a fun run, an ice cream social, the Fireman's fireworks and BBQ, and free family fun with carnival games, snow cones, cotton candy and inflatables.
And, of course, Bingo.
The festival’s Grand Parade kicks off on the morning of the Fourth, followed by the annual duck races, when Main Street is flooded with water and rubber duckies, delighting attendees, young and old.
All of these activities are the work of volunteers, sponsored by local organizations, and all benefit nonprofit causes in Stuart, several related to education.
FFA and honor students host guided tours of the school with refreshments sponsored by the Stuart Community Foundation Fund. Alumni like Tom Brewster can relive old memories and catch up on their alma mater's latest achievements.
Brewster is a retired pediatric physician focusing on genetic disorders. His early interest in biology steered him toward studying clinical genetics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. His career has taken him to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the U.S. Naval Hospital at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Children's Hospital in Boston and Barbara Bush Children's Hospital in Portland, Maine.
While Brewster's work has taken him far away from the place of his youth, he remains extremely proud of his hometown. Not just because the community can throw a big annual party. But because there is so much evidence of generations investing in their hometown.
"It is like going back in time. You see the same families. You know these people. Stuart is a unique, vibrant place where you are surrounded by folks you are connected to," Brewster said.
"There's value in the closeness of the people who live there and work there, and how they work so well together to improve the quality of life. The key is the leadership the town has," Brewster said.
His parents, Joe and Vera, were examples of the kind of leadership so evident in Stuart today. Their memory motivated Brewster to make a special gift back to his hometown. He recently gifted his shares in Tri-County Bank, which his father helped launch in 1945, to the unrestricted endowment of the Stuart Community Foundation Fund, an affiliated fund of Nebraska Community Foundation.
"A gift of bank shares was something I had thought about for years. I had never considered the stock as part of our retirement portfolio. I could transfer the stock to my children, but they don't have the same community connection as I had. I wanted to continue the heritage of giving back that my parents had created," Brewster said.
Brewster said his father held almost every volunteer civic job in Stuart, but he especially cherished the 30 years on the park board, his years on the White Horse Museum board and service on the Stuart school board. Before marriage, Vera Brewster was a professional dancer. She taught each of her six children, including Tom, how to tap dance, and she shared her talent for teaching dance with other members of the community.
Joe Brewster was a quiet man with a great sense of humor. He had lived through the depression and understood the importance of careful money management, not just for individuals and families, but for communities as well.
"A gift to the community's unrestricted endowment is important because it is more than a one-time gift,” Tom Brewster said. “As a pediatrician, I have always been focused on prevention. An unrestricted endowment provides a community important ongoing support. It can address access to health care, and other quality-of-life issues.
"Stuart's quality of life is very high. You see generation after generation in one place, and this provides a great sense of security," Brewster said. "It is great to see so many young people still there — not everyone, but so many."
Brewster said transferring the shares to Nebraska Community Foundation to convert them into a gift for his hometown was very easy.
"There's nothing difficult about it,” he said.
Brewster said he continues to be impressed by the work of the Nebraska Community Foundation.
“At NCF’s annual celebration, I heard stories and met people from across the state doing amazing things in their communities. I would say to NCF, 'Keep up the good work!' "
And to his hometown Brewster said, "Life is fragile. There is a lot of inequality, both biologically and geographically. Communities like Stuart can continue to provide safe, trusting places, where issues are manageable and where people have an easier way to go beyond their differences to work together. The hope would be that this does not change and that gifts to community will help preserve this culture."