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Bonnie Brown: Q&A with Cathy and Mike Stewart

The latest interview in the Ole Miss Retirees features Cathy and Mike Stewart. The organization’s mission is to enable all of the university’s faculty and staff retirees to maintain and promote a close association with the university. It is the goal of the Ole Miss Faculty/Staff Retirees Association to maintain communication by providing opportunities to attend and participate in events and presentations.

Cathy and Mike Stewart

Everyone knows and loves Cathy and Mike Stewart.  They are well known as the founders of Wildrose Kennels but before they gained prominence with Wildrose, Cathy was an award-winning teacher and Mike served in law enforcement.  Both of their families are part of the fabric of Oxford.  

Brown:  I know you all grew up in Oxford.  What was special about growing up here?

Cathy:  When I was growing up, everyone knew each other.  Oxford was a very friendly place with many opportunities at Ole Miss and in town.  We always felt safe in Oxford.

Mike:  The small-town, Southern atmosphere.  In some ways, it felt like Mayberry.  Locally-owned shops, the smell of the old courthouse, chasing the city’s mosquito fog machine which was spraying DDT!  Great fun on a bike.

Brown:  Please talk about your parents and family.  

Cathy: My father worked at Kroger for 32 years and was well known in Oxford as the meat cutter at Kroger.  Mama worked part-time and was home for “the kids.”  They both taught us values that have served us well.  All of the Ward kids worked at Ole Miss at some point.  My oldest sister, Nancy, worked at the School of Pharmacy and at Continuing Education.  My brother, Steve, was an accountant in the accounting and auditing departments at Ole Miss and my sister, LynAnn, is currently working at Student Health.  We are a close-knit family who enjoys getting together and remembering old times.  One of our favorite memories is sitting around the supper table together every night as kids.

Mike:  Best ever.  All grandparents, cousins, relatives lived in Oxford, Lafayette County.  Christmas gatherings were special and a wonderful support system to grow up in. My grandfather Stewart was the owner of City Barbershop on the Square known by everyone. My father, brother and sister all are Ole Miss graduates while my mother worked for many years in the University’s Personnel Department.

Brown: What’s your earliest childhood memory?

Cathy: Until I was 6 years old, we lived behind the Catholic church and the First Baptist Church parsonage.  I have fond memories of “playing house” with Mary Leigh Coleman in the playhouse at the parsonage.

Mike:  Life in the “Vet Village” (Ole Miss) in the 50s.  We lived in a ground apartment while my best friend, Clay, lived above us.  We would walk to Fraternity Row to ride the lions in front of the SAE Fraternity House.

Brown:  Where did you go to school? 

Cathy:  I graduated from Oxford High School, attended one year at Northeast Community College in Booneville, then went on to earn three degrees from the Ole Miss School of Education.

Mike:  Oxford Schools, then Ole Miss.

Brown:  What subjects were hardest/easiest for you in school?

Cathy:  The sciences were the most difficult for me.  I loved English… reading and writing.

Mike:  Most all classroom subjects were difficult but mostly math.  Easiest were art and history.

Brown:  What were you really into when you were a kid?

Cathy:  I loved to read and I was very involved in the youth fellowship of St. Andrews United Methodist Church and actively involved on the statewide level of the United Methodist Church.

Mike:  Bicycles and dogs –the family always had dogs for hunting and family pets.  From early on, their care and feeding were my responsibility.

Brown:  When you were 5 years old and asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, how did you respond?

Cathy:  I always knew I wanted to be a teacher.  I would “practice” using my sister and her best friend as my students.  I made them do schoolwork with me for hours!

Cathy Ward Stewart

Mike:  I didn’t have a clue.  Always liked cowboys, sheriffing, and, of course, the Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman, Sgt. Preston and his dog Yukon King.

Mike Stewart

Brown:  Who influenced you in your early life?  Did you have a mentor who influenced your career path?

Cathy:  I remember all my teachers, but Mrs. Willis was my second-grade teacher and she instilled a love of reading in me.  She made learning fun.  Dr. Cindy Leigh, Ole Miss professor, highly impacted my teaching as I pursued advanced degrees at Ole Miss.  She spent time in my classroom questioning me, encouraging me, and helped me be a better teacher in every way.

Mike:  Animals mostly.  I grew up around horses and dogs.  My dogs were way more influential than people.  Later in high school, Mrs. Sims, who was in charge of the DECA program, influenced me in marketing and sales.

Brown:  What was your first job?  What were your responsibilities?  How much were you paid?  How did it prepare you for your career as an educator and in law enforcement?

Cathy:  I begin working when I was 15 and I had two jobs that summer… addressing envelopes for the Herschel Jumper campaign and working at Happy House, a daycare owned by my aunt, Kathy Beene.  I think I made $2 an hour.  A strong work ethic was instilled in me by my parents and throughout my working life I worked more than one job at a time.  Working at Happy House supported my desire for teaching.  The summer before my senior year in high school, I worked at Continuing Education at Ole Miss with Mary Buchanan sending letters to Faulkner Conference participants which led to my working for Ann Abadie and the Faulkner Conference each summer for 20 years.  I also taught clog dancing as a result of taking a continuing education class on clog dancing, mentored students, worked cheerleader camps in the summer and eventually taught as an adjunct professor at Ole Miss and directed the University of Mississippi Writing Project.  All of this while teaching first and second grades at Lafayette Elementary.  I made $8500 the first year I taught.  My final job before retirement was establishing and directing the World Class Teaching Program at Ole Miss which was a mentoring program for teachers pursuing National Board Certification.

Mike:  I always had jobs at the stable but that was free labor except for gas money for my Volkswagen.  When I turned 16, I began working at J.E. Nelson where I learned sales and inventory management, both paid dividends in my career in public safety. The pay was $1.60 per hour. Started with the Oxford Police Department in 1974 where I rose through the ranks to Captain when in 1981, I departed to accept the position of Chief of Police at Ole Miss. 

Brown:  Talk about your path to becoming a teacher.

Cathy:  I knew from an early age I wanted to be a teacher and I never looked back.  I loved every day in the classroom.  My undergrad degree was obtained through Ole Miss in 1978 and I began teaching at Lafayette the fall after I graduated. Jerry Klepzig was my teaching partner for 20 years… in the same room.  We team-taught with her focus on math/science and my focus on reading/language arts.  All our teaching was done through thematic units.  Student teachers were placed in our room regularly and as a result, we were offered the opportunity to take classes at Ole Miss without cost.  I continued to go to school seeking to be a better teacher and finding answers to questions I had concerning my students which resulted in my obtaining my masters in 1981 and my doctorate in 1995.  

Cathy Ward Stewart

Brown:  Teaching can be rewarding but also challenging.  What were some challenges you faced as an educator, and how are those challenges different today?

Cathy:  Teaching children on so many different levels and making sure each child was taught in the way he/she learned best was a challenge.  Thankfully, I always had a supportive administration who let Jerry and me try new methods and think outside the box.  I think those challenges remain today for any good teacher.  The push to “teach to the test” is an additional challenge today.  School systems are buying programs that tell teachers what to say and do instead of allowing the teachers to teach the way they know best.  I don’t think I could teach in that situation.

Brown:  Tell us about your role/responsibilities at Ole Miss.

Cathy:  In 1997 I achieved National Board Certification, one of the first 100 teachers in Mississippi to achieve this certification.  In 1998 Dean Chambless approached me and asked me to start the World Class Teaching Program at Ole Miss.  This program is designed to assist teachers who are pursuing National Board Certification for which Mississippi teachers receive a $6000 stipend for 10 years, the life of the certificate.  For four years I established and directed this program.  Fortunately, I was able to pay National Board Certified teachers across the state to mentor other teachers as they went through the certification process and over 1000 teachers were certified during my four years as director.  It was a rewarding but stressful job.

I am currently President of the School of Education Board of Advisors and was inducted into the School of Education Hall of Fame in 2017.  I am also a member of the Mississippi Teacher Hall of Fame.  

I’ve been a part of Ole Miss for a long time as I began working part-time for Ole Miss in 1973 at Continuing Education, then moved to the Southern Culture Center to continue working with the Faulkner Conference.  I quit in 1995 to complete work on my doctorate and began again in 1996 as the Co-Director of the Summer Writing Project.  I continued to work at cheerleader camps during those summers.

Cathy pictured with Beretta, a retired mama dog

Brown:  Tell us how/when your Ole Miss “story” began?   Who hired you?  How long did you work at Ole Miss? 

Mike:  I was hired through an interview process in 1981 and started that summer in the Student Affairs Division.  The final hiring was by Dean Moak.  I was hired to be the Chief of Police at age 27 becoming the youngest Chief of Police in the state.  

Mike Stewart pictured with Wildrose puppy

Brown:  Working with college students, I’m sure you have had some memorable experiences.  Describe your most memorable days at work.  

Mike:  We had some wonderful successes which were quite uncommon at the time for University Police Departments and their relationships with students in many campus settings.  Strong relationships were built with the campus student media, ASB and even the fraternities that proved beneficial in enhancing safety and public confidence.  At one point, Ole Miss was ranked third in the nation by the Safe Schools Initiative as one of the safest schools in the nation.  

Brown:  In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges in law enforcement today?

Mike:  The lack of public confidence, respect, and trust.  Some of the problems rest with the Law Enforcement approach in their communities focusing more on enforcement in the community vs. a public safety mindset.  This will be a challenge to turn around.

Brown:  How did you all meet?  When did you all begin dating?

Cathy:  I was a next-door neighbor to Mike’s only first cousins and when he was there visiting, we spent time together.  Neither of us can recall the first time we met.  We dated on and off throughout high school but began dating seriously in 1977.  We were married in March 1978.

Cathy and Mike on their two-month expedition in Alaska

Brown:  You each had a successful career prior to starting Wildrose Kennels.  How did you transition from teaching and law enforcement to building a new business?  

Cathy:  No one could have ever told me that I could sell anything… far removed from the teaching profession.  However, I’ve sold many puppies over the phone the last 20 years!  Mike retired in 2000 and I retired in 2002.  Mike always trained dogs on the side as he has a gift with communicating with animals.  He can make them do anything!  In 1999 Wildrose Kennels became available and at first he was going to buy a couple of dogs to train and breed on the side and the next thing I know he said he was going to buy the kennel which consisted of a few dogs, some equipment, the name which gundog owners knew well and the website.  He began training a few dogs on the side and in 2001 Ducks Unlimited (DU) asked him to train a Wildrose dog to be the DU mascot.  Our business exploded.  I couldn’t retire fast enough to get home and help Mike.  I would type answers to emails for Mike at night.  One night a person was complaining because his dog would not sit and stay quiet for very long.  My education knowledge kicked in and I began telling him that his expectations were not developmentally appropriate… suddenly I realized there were similarities between training dogs and teaching children…developmentally appropriate skills, high expectations, positive reinforcement.  It was funny.

Mike:  Again, my skills learned with Oxford and Ole Miss Police Management gave me experience in personnel management, training/teaching skills and coaching teams along with dealing with the public.  Problem-solving does not differ much from building a public safety department or a business.  It’s about salesmanship, communication, building trust and brand recognition.

Brown:  I know you both likely had a good business plan when you started Wildrose.  Did you have any idea that it would become a globally, successful business?

Cathy:  I kept thinking that we would run out of people who wanted to buy our dogs!!  I never thought we would have dogs in every state in the United States and every province in Canada as well as Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, the Bahamas, Mexico, and Thailand.  Mike was a fabulous Chief of Police and very innovative with Community Policing and other unique programs, but he also shines as a marketing guru and entrepreneur.  When he wrote his book, Sporting Dogs and Retriever Training, the Wildrose Way, it reinforced how good he is at taking a concept and breaking it down into small pieces making it easy for anyone to follow.  He created a wonderful, no-force training methodology that is known across the US and explains it so well in his book.  His high standards and unacceptance of anything but the best has played such a role in making Wildrose Kennels what it is today.  We have met wonderful people across the US and built long-lasting relationships.

Mike: No, it’s been a journey with many twists and turns.  Opportunities seized and lost.  We had a vision, put in the work, and followed the opportunities for product improvement, brand building and providing exciting client experiences.  As they say, if you build it right, they will come.  I was pleased to be inducted into the Mississippi Outdoor Hall of Fame in 2018.  It was a welcome acknowledgment of my skills as a breeder and trainer.  

Mike pictured with Deke, the Ducks Unlimited mascot

Brown:  Since you are both involved with Wildrose Kennels, how do you all balance your work life with home life?

Cathy:  Many times I have said, “After 6:00 tonight we are not talking business.”  That lasts about an hour and then we’re talking Wildrose.  I’ve also been known to quit often but always hired back in a hurry.  It’s difficult for Mike to fuss at me because I just look at him and say, “okay, I quit.”  Seriously, it is tough at times, but we build on each other’s strengths and make it work.  During those first years, we did not really have a home life . . . just work 24/7.

Mike:  It was a complete blur for many years . . . one and the same.

Brown:  How would you describe the business structure of Wildrose and the responsibilities of running the business.    

Mike:  Cathy and I own Wildrose International which is comprised of licensed Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, MS, Dallas, TX and Hillsborough, NC. Each kennel has its own staff and owners.  The kennels are working to the same standards and our job now is to oversee these facilities and assist them in any way we can.  This has freed our days up to travel and enjoy the things we love.  I continue to be involved in the marketing of the sites, train some dogs in the summer, and help with problem dogs at each of the kennels. I also conduct a “Training of Trainers” at each of the facilities.  Cathy helps the owners/managers with their financial books and documents.

 Brown:  What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced?

Cathy: Probably the most difficult is not being able to control the genetic disorders that occur in dogs.  We have very few problems but even one call from a client saying a pup has a heart murmur or hip dysplasia is so painful for us.  

Mike:  In both business and in the years of policing, the biggest challenge is personnel management.  Motivation, development, coaching, guidance, solving problems and conflicts. In both environments, it’s about building great teams.

Brown:  What are some skills that you think everyone should learn?

Cathy:  Listening to the client is important.  I have heard a lot of “best retrieve” stories but it’s important to listen, to show you care, to find out what the client really wants.  I think that holds true for relationships as well.  Listening is key.

Mike:  Time and resource management.  Realizing discipline and persistency is the path to success, not expecting to become an overnight success with minimal effort.

Brown:  What single event has had the biggest impact on who you are?

Cathy:  I’ve been married now almost twice as long as I was single, so I have to say that marrying Mike is the single event that has had the biggest impact on who I am.  It’s interesting how much you change over the years.  Mike has challenged me to do things I never thought I could do, and I have taken on his best qualities and made them part of my life.  I have probably acquired some of his bad habits as well but we have a good life together and one I am very thankful for.  I am definitely not the same person I was when we married but feel I’m stronger, more confident, more diverse in my abilities.

Cathy on the Colorado Trail in Granite, CO

Mike:  I can’t name just one. Many levels over time provided the direction.

Brown:  What’s the best part of your day?

Cathy:  Mornings… starting each day quietly, reflectively, and slowly.

Mike:  Outside working a Labrador.  They love life and their work. They don’t complain and have few worries.  It’s a pleasure seeing them successful.

Mike pictured with Deke

Brown:  What is the best advice you ever received?

Cathy:  Live simply.  Know the difference between needs and wants. Look for the good in everybody. Love the Lord your God with all your mind, soul and heart and love your neighbor as yourself.

Mike:  Trust no one unless you verify.  No good deed goes unpunished.  

Brown:  Describe your perfect weekend.

Cathy:  Camping at a state park in the EarthRoamer, hiking trails, reading in between hikes and Mike cooking us a burger on the grill

Mike:  Traveling in the EarthRoamer to remote mountain locations for a trail trek.

Brown:  What’s your favorite movie and how many times have you watched it?

Cathy:  Bridges of Madison County, too many times to count!

Mike:  Outlaw Josey Wales with Clint Eastwood – over 10 viewings

Brown:  Tell us something about yourself that not many people may know.  

Cathy:  As I am aging, I am making a concerted effort to keep my mind sharp and aware.  I learned to play the flute when I was in junior high school but quit when I went to high school.  I am re-teaching myself to play the flute and having a ball.  

Mike:   I’m not that social of a person which is a bit different than what I have had to project over the years. Working with people has been imperative to my success in policing and business. Also, it may not be common knowledge that I had a career as a Navy Reservist retiring as a Commander in 2005. Many of those years I was an agent in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).  This experience definitely influenced my work in public safety and at Wildrose.  

Brown:  What’s your favorite way to waste time?

Cathy: Reading Facebook.

Mike: Watching the news . . . total waste!

Brown:  Fill in this blank:  If I could snap my fingers and acquire an experience or talent, it would be . . .  

Cathy:  I would love to be able to paint.  As a hiker and a lover of nature, I see so many scenes I wish I could reproduce.

Mike:  Being a better “fix-it” guy

Brown:  What do you do to get rid of stress?

Cathy:  Reading, walking, hiking

Mike:  Going out with the dogs for a walk enjoying time outside

Brown:  What are your pet peeves?

Cathy:  Dishonesty

Mike: Laziness in others, people that want something for nothing, an “owe me” mindset

Brown:  What makes you happy?

Cathy:  Hiking a trail, being in nature and being with my family

Mike: Seeing others successful with their dogs and being a part of making this so

Brown:  What are some things that you have marked off your bucket list?

Cathy:  A Napa Valley Wine tour

Mike:  RV trip, off-grid camping, to Alaska through BC and the Yukon

Brown:  Looking back on your life, what have you done that has given you the most satisfaction?

Cathy:  Teaching children to read.

Mike:  Creating Wildrose.  Enjoying the company’s growth to becoming a brand.  Meeting interesting people and the travel experiences it afforded.

Mike on the levee with studs

Brown:  Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your 18-year-old self?

Cathy:  Never underestimate yourself.

Mike:  Slow down and enjoy every moment.  Life passes by in a hurry.

Brown:  You both seem to have a busy schedule.  How do you “re-charge?”

Cathy:  Hiking and being out in nature.

Mike:  In the past, a motorcycle ride.  Now, mostly walks with my dog in the outdoors

Brown:  What’s left on your bucket list?

Cathy:  I would like to go back to Glacier National Park and hike.  I also want to camp and hike at all the Arkansas State Parks.

Mike:  Destination travel to places across North America we never had time to visit.  Outdoor experiences.

Brown:  To quote Katherine Meadowcroft, Cultural activist, and writer, “What one leaves behind is the quality of one’s life, the summation of the choices and actions one makes in this life, our spiritual and moral values.”  What is your legacy?

Cathy: As a teacher, I tried to teach to my children the importance of reading by telling them to read every night for 15 minutes before going to sleep.  I hope some still remember that.  I also encouraged them to become lifelong learners.  So, I hope I leave a legacy of the importance of reading and learning.

Mike:  Wildrose as an outdoor lifestyle company that continues for generations to come.

Bonnie Brown is a retired staff member of the University of Mississippi. She most recently served as Mentoring Coordinator for the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy. For questions or comments, email her at bbrown@olemiss.edu.

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