Stuart Keith Scalia is a Monroe girl, through and through. She was born here, has lived her entire life here, found her one true love here, reared a family here, and is one of the happiest people you’d ever care to meet. Stuart is also a very busy woman. She balances a successful career with a robust family life, and still finds time to volunteer in the community that she loves with all of her heart. And whenever she can, this girl travels!
article by GEORGIANN POTTS and photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK
For Stuart, travel is a kind of therapy. She has enjoyed many special travel experiences in a number of different countries, and remembers them all with a special joy. Stuart has ridden a camel in Egypt, shouted “Opa!” from a mountain top in Greece and then tossed her empty Ouzo glass over the side, placed prayers in the cracks of the Western Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and happily shopped the open markets in Turkey.
But Stuart believes that there is more to travel than just these special memories. Whenever she “gets away” she loves watching the people – even in crowded airports. Stuart admits that she is always curious about the people she sees, and that she would love to know their stories! She believes that we could all learn a lot about life if we just studied the people we pass by each day.
Because of her many contributions to our community, her tremendous talents as a floral designer, and for her irrepressible zest for life, Stuart Scalia is our June Bayou Icon.
Although Stuart Scalia has traveled the world, among her most favorite travel memories are those from trips she enjoyed as a child with her family. When she and her two sisters were little, their parents bought a new station wagon and the family vacations began. “It seems like yesterday that we all piled in the car, threw our sleeping bags in the back with not a seatbelt in sight, and hit the highway,” Stuart remembers with a laugh. “We played games, sang songs, and many times we just stared out the window to see what this life is all about.”
Stuart’s curiosity about life and her innate sense of adventure remain today. She is interested in just about everything, and is always ready to learn or do something new. Change does not phase her; instead, she sees change as an opportunity to grow. “I’ve learned that if you can conform to change and dig deep within yourself, you will find hidden talents that you might have never realized you had,” Stuart says. “You just might miss the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Stuart’s parents met when both were students at Neville High School. That meeting wouldn’t have come about if Stuart’s father, Malcolm J. Keith, Jr., hadn’t moved to Monroe when he was a senior. Stuart laughs when she says her dad came from Paris – but quickly adds that he came from “Cowboy Paris, Texas,” not “Eiffel Tower Paris”. Her dad was a country boy, reared in Texas where he learned how to break and ride horses. Stuart’s mother, Sherry T. Keith, lived in Bastrop and Monroe, and was a drum majorette at Neville when Stuart’s dad first met her.
After graduation, Stuart’s dad returned to Texas to attend Texas A&M. Her mother enrolled at ULM. Her dad graduated and then worked off his masters from ULM. He enjoyed a successful career in the banking industry. When their university days were over, they reunited and married soon after. Later they welcomed three daughters in quick succession – Danette, Stuart, and Troy. When Mrs. Mac’s Children’s Shop became available, Stuart’s mom bought the business with good friends Linda Reeves and Gwen Hardy.
Growing Up in Monroe
Stuart’s paternal grandfather passed away when the little girls were small, so many of Stuart’s childhood memories include her grandmother, Lorraine Stuart Keith. Called “Mom Keith” by the family, she played a significant role in Stuart’s upbringing while living nearby.
Mom Keith had a piano and wanted all three girls to learn to play. Stuart took lessons, but the instrument was just not for her – although Stuart admits that she can still “bang out a mean rendition of ‘Trailers For Sale’ and ‘Rent’” when the mood strikes. Her grandmother was also an accomplished seamstress. She made all of her own clothes, and often made three “just alike” dresses for her granddaughters. She spent countless hours attempting to teach Stuart to sew, but Stuart found that sewing, like playing the piano, was just not for her. “Truth is, I couldn’t sit still long enough to get the thread through the needle’s eye,” Stuart confesses.
Stuart remembers growing up in Monroe in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s as the very best of times. Her description of childhood play reminds many what it was like to grow up without the distraction of constant television and ever-present technology. “First of all, everyone had a ditch in their yard which was the center of everything. We played in it, swam in it when it rained, caught tadpoles in it which morphed into zillions of frogs, and occasionally we nearly cut a toe off in it,” Stuart recounts with a giggle. “We never really knew what was in the bottom of the ditch after a good rain. A few stitches and a tetanus shot, and we were good to go on to our next adventure!”
Stuart’s family lived on Emerson Street just a few blocks from St. Paul’s Day School and Lexington Elementary. The girls attended both, and later attended Lee Junior High (now Neville Junior High) and Neville. Stuart says that she was not a “bad” child, but does admit that she was quite full of herself – which sometimes got her in trouble.
While a student at Lexington, Stuart remembers that she had nearly daily trips to the principal’s office. Mr. Kuckles, the principal, was very special to Stuart because he had a pet tarantula in his office. When she was sent there, he would call her in with a stern “Miss Keith — In my office — Now.” Once the door closed, Kuckles would get out the tarantula and they would have their discussion. Afterward, he would open the door, wink at Stuart, and say he’d probably see her tomorrow. Stuart would giggle and say, “You bet!” Today she is grateful that times were different then or she fears that she would still be sitting in a time-out spot somewhere for eternity.
At both Lee and Neville, Stuart was active in many things. She was a cheerleader at both Lee and Neville and joined as many clubs as possible. She loved her school years and wanted to be a part of everything. While at Neville, she had the bad luck to slide into Mr. Larry Loflin, the Neville principal, one morning just after pep rally. Stuart had taken off her tennis shoes and was sliding down the hall in her sock feet when he stepped out of his office. She simply couldn’t stop herself in time. “I plowed right over him and wiped him out,” she says. “Needless to say, he didn’t love me like Mr. Kuckles had – and he didn’t have a pet tarantula, either.”
When Stuart was in the 10th grade, a good friend Tracey Scalia introduced her to her cousin, James Scalia – a good-looking 11th grader. They began dating, and dated all through high school. Shortly after high school graduation, they married. Today, 43 years later, their love is still obvious to everyone. They have lived in Monroe the entire time.
A Family Of Their Own
Stuart and James were to have three children, but the first two were 3 years apart and the third arrived 13 years later. Stuart chose to stay at home with the first two – Miranda and James — until they were school age. At that point, she went to work at Lexington Elementary where she could have a job and still be at home when her children came home. She has great memories of her time there.
Stuart’s own first grade teacher, Mrs. Gabriella Tarver was still teaching Lexington when Stuart’s children began there. “She was a wonderful reading teacher, and I can still hear her reading books to her class in that beautiful southern accent of hers,” Stuart says. “When I was working there, it automatically took me back many years to when I was a first grader and she was reading the very same books to me. This is the perfect example of why it’s so wonderful to live in the community you grew up in!”
The only downside Stuart discovered when she began working at Lexington was that she was surrounded by many of the teachers who had taught her – and they all had sharp memories of her “shenanigans” as a student. They would share these at lunch every day, often causing Stuart to blush. Stuart had the best surprise for them, however, when she wondered if she might be expecting another child. She had a 13-year-old and a 10-year-old, so doubted it. One of the teachers ran out and got a pregnancy test, and then Stuart says 20 of them all crowded together to see the results. Daughter Mary Ellis would be born in due time. “At that moment, it sunk in. There was a wee baby on the way,” Stuart recalls, “and I was facing 25 years at Skatetown listening to “Dirty Diana” lyrics booming away. Suddenly, I needed a martini, but obviously that was out of the question!”
A Career Path Meanders
When the children were nearing college age, James suggested to Stuart that she might need to leave Lexington and seek employment elsewhere. She applied at the State Farm Regional Office in Monroe and was hired. After spending a brief time in Auto, she was transferred to Agency Resources, the department that recruited and trained agents. She loved this work, and traveled to job fairs in Louisiana and Arkansas. State Farm encouraged its employees to attend as many of the continuing education courses as were offered on site. “I think that I took all of the classes that were offered,” Stuart says. “I thought how great it was that this company would pay for us to better ourselves and obtain knowledge in so many different areas.”
Unfortunately for Stuart and the entire region, State Farm closed the regional office. Stuart was offered a transfer to Baton Rouge, but that wasn’t possible at the time. Even so, a new career path opened for Stuart when she was offered a position at Premier Plaza working for Joe Holyfield, Dave Cattar, and Trey Nelson. During her time with them, she began learning what it takes to manage a large building filled with multiple tenants.
After 7 years at Premier Plaza, Stuart was hired to manage Washington Plaza. Mike Ashbrook and his son, Scott, asked her in to interview out of the blue. “I wasn’t looking for another job, but sometimes the Lord opens a door when you least expect it,” Stuart says. “That was almost 15 years ago, and I was blessed once again to be in a position that I truly love and enjoy!”
It’s Like Running 100 Households At Once
Stuart quickly learned that being Property Manager for the Ashbrook’s family-owned business would entail an exponentially larger scope of work than she had experienced previously. The holdings included not only Washington Plaza but also nursing homes and several other businesses. “When I say there is never a dull moment, I meant it,” Stuart says. “It’s like running a household times a hundred and any given day can bring a new issue. I had to learn to change course many times every day.”
Luckily for Stuart, the crew that works to keep all of the properties ready and in great shape is a truly fine one. “I love my guys! They probably say I ride a broom many days and I always remind them that I will sweep them up with it!” she says. One of her responsibilities is being available to the tenants, many of whom she sees daily. Washington Plaza opened in 1984, and some of the tenants have lived there ever since then. Several years ago, an elderly gentleman approached Stuart and asked if he might show his family around the building because he had worked there as a teenager. “I said he certainly could, but only if I could walk with them and hear all about the building back then. He had wonderful stories including that the building held businesses that sold all sorts of things. On the first floor, they sold Model T cars,” Stuart says. “They would be unloaded from the trains and then sold in the building. He added that my own office was originally the basement, a place he and others avoided when possible. He explained that it is haunted!”
Stuart never has a “typical” on the job. People come in and out of her office daily with issues to discuss, emergencies arise, and she is constantly acting as a dispatcher, sending the crew to locations to handle whatever needs handling. She credits the fact that the entire crew treats Washington Plaza as though it were theirs and take care of it with that mindset. Stuart also says that they treat the tenants like family. “We want our building to be a comfortable space where you enjoy coming every day,” Stuart says. “We take pride in our building and in our work. I consider the most important foundation of commercial rental is tenant retention. If we create an environment that makes our tenants want to stay, our building will always be full.”
In Her Spare Time
Many in the Monroe community know Stuart best for her amazing talent with flowers – designing stunning arrangements for all manner of occasions and sometimes for no reason at all! “In my spare time I do flowers – LOTS of flowers,” Stuart explains. “I do wedding flowers, party flowers, Hospice flowers – for just about any occasion, I’ll sling flowers!”
Among many things that she loves, Stuart considers flowers to be her passion. She loves them because of their diversity, their beauty, and that they can’t talk back! She spends countless hours hauling and arranging them, but when her work with them is done, seeing them bringing joy to others makes it all worthwhile. Stuart confesses that she could stare at flowers and at pictures of flowers all day long.
Several years ago, her niece had a lovely wedding in New Orleans. Stuart “did” the flowers for that special family occasion. The wedding was subsequently chosen to be featured in Southern Bride Magazine. As the floral designer, Stuart was sent paperwork and a release form to be signed so that she would be identified by name. She signed it and returned it. Not long after Stuart received a call from the editor telling Stuart that she had forgotten to fill out her contact information. Stuart thanked her, but said that she didn’t want her contact information included. She explained that she did an occasional wedding, but that she didn’t want to advertise. The editor was amazed that Stuart would pass up this opportunity to promote her work. Stuart convinced her, and although her name appeared in the feature, how to reach her did not.
Although she downplays her talent, all who have seen examples of Stuart’s work recognize it as art. “I can’t take much credit for my arrangements because the lovely flowers are the stars!” she insists. “There really is no way that they can be messed up. They simply will not allow you to look bad.”
Stuart loves Monroe today as much as she did as a little girl growing up here. For her, life is wrapped inexorably around community. Here she has found life’s greatest blessings. She has also learned what really defines “success.” As Stuart explains, “Success is not always the job that pays the most. To me, success is doing what you love and enjoy and then actually getting paid to do it!”
Some might look at her non-linear career path as being undesirable. Not Stuart. She believes that the beauty of her career is that she has been able to map out and create opportunities that worked for her and for her family. “The best part of so many different types of work is that I took both something and many someone’s with me from each position to the next. I have made so many friends who are still enriching my life,” she says.
While Stuart was developing an enviable body of work experience, she never failed to give her time wherever she could through volunteerism. She has served as room mother for all 3 of her children, Brownie leader, youth group leader, soccer mom, football mom, baseball mom, Lambda mother sponsor, and served on countless community boards. She is busy working in her church and is an active member of the Monroe Garden Club and the Monroe Garden Study League. She and Terri Arthur recently co-chaired a major fundraising event for the latter.
Today, much of Stuart’s attention is focused on her five “perfect” grandchildren who lovingly call her “Sugar.” Sosie, James V (aka Bubba), Ellery, Jaxson, and Rhodes occupy a large portion of her heart. She loves spending time with each of them, laughing and sharing life’s little adventures. “I remind my husband often that by the time I’m finished rearing kids, I will have spent 50 years doing just that!”
Stuart’s only regret is that her precious grandchildren will never experience the kind of freedom she did as a child. As she explains, “Life back in the day without cell phones and electronic devices was truly living.” If she could only transport them back in time and find a handy ditch nearby . . .
Today Stuart describes herself as one who “knows something about many things, but a lot about nothing in particular”. Many would disagree. Her versatility and ability to do many things quite well bely that description. Stuart is clearly someone who has embraced every change that life threw at her and learned something of value with each one. “I cannot wait until the day comes when I’m stooped over and old as dirt,” she says. “That will be the day that I am truly complete and full grown.”
Until that day, this area and countless people will be blessed to know and work with Stuart. Such generous, happy souls are not found just anywhere.