Self-taught genius pioneered electronics
By Jim Fruitt
Scotts Valley Banner
July 25, 1990
Ray Stewart had a habit of performing impromptu yardwork around his factory behind Sky Park Airport.
And that was how young Denver Graff found him one morning in August of 1962. Graff had come to see the electronics pioneer for a job.
Stewart, still in his undershirt, shoveled weeds while Graff talked about himself in the dirt driveway of Stewart's plant. At the end of it all Graff had himself a job as personnel manager of Stewart's fledgling company.
Stewart Engineering Company was the first electronics factory to set up shop in Scotts Valley in 1959.
Stewart told the San Francisco Examiner in 1961 that he moved his firm and family to Scotts Valley "because it reminded him of the lake country in his native Michigan and because he wanted his delicate work performed 'in a natural atmosphere of unhurried, accommodating serenity.'"
With about 40 employees and two 5000 square foot prefabricated buildings, the plant manufactured Backward Wave Oscillators- a Stewart invention.
Used as a component in a device giving jet pilots warning when detected by radar, the oscillator made Stewart rich when he sold out to Watkins-Johnson in June of 1963.
"He was a self-made man," said Al Isaacs, an engineer for Stewart from 1962 to 1963. "He didn't have much education but he had a personality people believed in."
"Like most people of his type, he had an ego the size of a barn," Graff said. "He had a tremendous interest in what he was doing and was able to concentrate on that interest long enough to become successful at it."
Graff said Stewart sold his company because it grew bigger than he could handle.
"He was a craftsman and as a craftsman he was superb," Graff said, "but he wasn't a manager and he put the company up for sale because it got too big for him to handle."
At age 58, Stewart retired to Goleta in 1963 and bought a second home in Jamaica, Graff said.
Now 85, Stewart is living somewhere in Hawaii, said his former secretary Margaret Blackwell.
She said Stewart still comes around to see his old company once in a while. The last time she saw him was over a year ago.
"(His lack) of education didn't matter," said Blackwell. "He was a genius- self made, self taught. One could always see the wheels turning."
"He wasn't a genius," said Graff. "People tend to eulogize someone like him after a while. He just had an idea and stuck with it."
:"I don't know if he was the luckiest man alive or the smartest."
Stewart trained as a radio tube technician at a vocational school in Los Angeles and worked as a microwave tube technician for Litton Manufacturing during World War II. He later worked for Stanford University as a master tube technician and it was there where he got his idea for his oscillator.
He married Lois Bart of Soquel in the early fifties and began his company in a garage on Cherryville Avenue in Soquel.
To build his oscillator he needed to make a special vacuum tube and for that he needed a special industrial furnace. He designed a new brazing furnace for the job and it worked out so well that he started manufacturing them for the electronics industry.
The furnace's popularity got him through the development of his oscillator, Graff said.
By 1963, Stewart had over 120 employees working for him. As personnel manager, Graff said he was designated to keep the peace in the company and that wasn't easy.
"Ray wasn't an easy man to work for," Graff said. "He had a temper and if he was in a bad mood he had habit of firing the first man he saw when he got to work in the morning. Our maintenance supervisor consequently got fired about three times a month."
Despite his quirks, Graff said all Stewart's employees like their boss.
"He was a human being with good and bad in him," he said. "We all liked him and he was in fact a helluva nice guy... compassionate and thoughtful."
One of Stewart's few hobbies was flying. He learned to fly and bought his plane at Sky Park Airport.
He and his flying friends flew to vacation getaways around the state like Palm Springs and Cuyama Valley, said Esther Rice, who operated Sky Park with her husband for 16 years.
Stewart's home, now the Montevalle Mobile Home Park clubhouse at 552 Bean Creek Road, is up before the Scotts Valley Cultural Resource Preservation Commission for possible preservation as a historical landmark.
Stewart bought the home in 1958 from UCSC Chemistry Professor George Nelson.
Nelson built the home sometime before 1951, said Rice who was a friend of the Nelsons.
The home received the highest recommendation for preservation out of 12 sites studied for possible preservation at city landmarks by the consultants group, Archaeological Resource Management of San Jose.
Stewart's ownership of the home was a big reason for preserving it, said the consultant's report.
"(Stewart) is important for being the first to recognize the potential for basing electronic industries in Scotts Valley, thus forming the foundation of the primary economic activity of the city today," consultants said.
Scotts Valley Historical Society Civic Center Drive; Scotts Valley, CA 95066