The El Paso Symphony Orchestra took an unusual but very appropriate action this year – dedicating the entire 2014-15 season to longtime symphony supporters Marlene and J.O. Stewart Jr.

“The Stewarts have been an inspiration to all symphony supporters and the board members,” says Kacy Spivack, the symphony’s board chair. “We appreciate their dedication to providing music of excellence to El Paso.”

The couple will be recognized for their support at this weekend’s concerts. In May, the symphony will host a private reception in their honor. But the whole season has celebrated their generosity and leadership.

“The Stewarts care deeply and are very committed to the orchestra,” says Ruth Ellen Jacobson, the symphony’s executive director. “It’s hard to run a non-profit, but you could always count on them – they see the importance of having an orchestra in our city and they’ve always been there for us. With the support of longtime friends like them, the El Paso Symphony Orchestra is proudly celebrating 84 years and can still boast that it is the longest-running, continuously operating orchestra in Texas.”

But their support is much more than financial, Jacobson adds. “It’s their leadership, their advice, their time and their relationships with the staff and orchestra. They are among the very, very few donors who know all our musicians in the orchestra.”

Although the honor celebrates 25 years of the couple’s support, the symphony’s records are sketchy before 1990. In reality, the Stewarts have been symphony donors for much longer.

And from the beginning, Marlene and J.O. have been friends with orchestra members. They enjoyed making music with and entertaining musicians in their home, starting back with their more modest houses before they built their beautiful home in the Upper Valley where they lived for 30 years.

Last fall, they sold that home and today they live in a home that features one of the best mountain views of any property in El Paso. And the best seat in the house is the bench in front of J.O.’s grand piano. When photographer Melody Parra and l arrived, J.O. was playing Debussy’s “Claire de lune.” He still practices every day, a habit he learned as a child. His father said he needed to play 30 minutes before school and after school – or else face a “discussion in the barn.”

J.O., a third-generation El Pasoan whose grandfather moved here from Alabama in the early 1900s, graduated from El Paso High and then Baylor University, where he studied business and theology. After two years in the Air Force, he returned to El Paso to direct Christian music programs, a job that took him to Detroit where he heard Marlene singing in a church choir and fell in love.

Marlene was born in Kilsyth, Scotland, on an ancient trade route between Edinburgh and Glasgow. When she was 11, her family moved to Michigan to join other relatives. Her father had taught himself to play the piano in Scotland and she learned, too, becoming quite skilled at her age. After immigrating, she did not continue with piano, but loved to sing.

The Stewarts married in Michigan in 1965 – they will celebrate their 50th anniversary in August – and then moved to Los Angeles for J.O. to work on a master’s degree in music at the University of Southern California. Meanwhile Marlene, who was accepted into the Hollywood School of Dance, ended up choosing voice over dance and began studying opera at USC.

She sang in the opera program’s chorus and auditioned for a role in a theatrical production that was going to be televised. Although she had never taken a drama class, she won a role – but the birth of James O. Stewart III changed the couple’s educational plans.

They left for Texas and in 1970, founded El Paso Disposal Company, starting with one employee and a pickup truck. When they sold the company in 1999, they had about 300 employees and a large fleet of vehicles.

After “retiring,” the couple helped shape our community’s future in many ways, including donating 10 acres of land for the new Texas Tech medical school. In 2001, they founded the Marlene and J.O. Stewart Jr. Foundation to further their philanthropic efforts. They have funded many good causes, including UTEP scholarships, religious institutions and cultural groups, particularly the symphony and El Paso Pro-Musica. Marlene served on the Ballet El Paso board, the Lydia Patterson Institute board, and the symphony board for more than 20 years.

They spoke with El Paso Inc. about their recording studio, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the musicians they’ve known and their concerns about the lack of music education in schools today.

Email arts and culture columnist Cindy Graff Cohen at

Q: Would you have believed back when you first began contributing to the symphony that you would become among its longest-tenured, most generous sponsors?

M.: We never thought about it; we just kept doing it because we thought the symphony was important and we love music. We didn’t feel like we should have a business here and not give back to the community.

Q: You both are passionate about music, and music brought you together when you were young. Is music a part of your daily life now?

J.O.: I practice daily and one of the main reasons is because I have read articles that say that as we get older, we need to do things to stimulate our minds. So I read material that I’ve never read before and I try to practice music that I’ve never played before.

M.: I have music going all-daylong at home – I listen to NPR all day. I don’t like the feel of a house without music.

Q: As part of your musical life here, you have a wonderful recording studio. How did you acquire El Adobe Recording Studios?

J.O.: When I came back to El Paso, I had three things that I wanted to do. I wanted to start a conservatory of music, be involved with music at church, and have a recording studio – and I’ve had the studio for years. Never made any money from it; I don’t think any studio does. But it’s been interesting.

When I bought the property in 1980, it wasn’t a recording studio. It had been built in 1934 and it was going to be a nightclub, a dance hall and a restaurant, and when Prohibition came, it just killed that business. Then it was used for all kinds of things.

The first group who came to record was Lynyrd Skynyrd. They spent about two months in El Paso after the car accident that killed some of their members and crippled others. They wanted to see if they could recover from that tragedy and they did some rehearsing and some recording. Juan Gabriel also recorded there.

A number of musicians in the symphony, like Sam Trimble and Kenny Capshaw, have played in the studio. I really got better acquainted with many of the symphony members when they came to do studio work.

Q: Have you recorded some of your own music there?

J.O.: I’ve done some keyboard in some sessions and Marlene made a CD there, mostly for family.

M.: I really did it for my parents. I sang a lot of my Dad’s favorite gospel songs.

Q: People say that your support of the symphony is more than financial – that you know the musicians and have friends among the musicians. How do these relationships influence your support?

J.O.: So many of these musicians, we’ve done music with them, we’ve done church work with them, we’ve sponsored scholarships and more. We genuinely appreciate the players because they give so much time and get paid very nominally. If it hadn’t been for their generosity and unselfishness, we would not have the ongoing symphony that we have.

M.: We care for them and respect their talents. When you think about what it takes to be a good musician, you just have to appreciate what they’ve done so that we could enjoy this gorgeous music.

Q: You were very close to maestro Gürer Aykal. Have you gotten to know Bo Rattay very well yet?

M.: Oh, yes, he’s a great guy and a lot of fun. He’s around us a lot – for instance, we had him here for Thanksgiving. He’s such a great cook and he makes great martinis! We just love watching him conduct – we love him like we did Gürer.

J.O.: He’s not puffed up by his ego; he’s a very humble, highly gifted conductor on the international stage. Gürer is coming back in October and to have Bo here and to have Gürer, who, next to Abraham Chavez, are the two greatest conductors El Paso has had in 85 years, to have two great world-class conductors who respect and appreciate each other, is a blessing.

The orchestra is really excited about Bo and equally excited that Gürer’s coming back. That’s the best of both worlds.

Q: What are your thoughts on the next generation of classical music supporters in our community? Are you optimistic or a bit worried?

M.: I’m a little worried because I see the children in schools not getting the music education that we had. And if they aren’t getting it there and if their parents aren’t encouraging them to appreciate music, I’m concerned.

J.O.: I think that having a young, contemporary conductor like Bo really helps in reaching out to the younger people in grade school, high school and college.

Q: What would you tell young people today about the importance of supporting an orchestra in our city?

J.O.: I don’t know the source of what I’m going to say, but studies have found that students who study music do better academically across the entire spectrum of schoolwork.

M.: I used to go out and raise money more than I do now, and I would have people tell me, “No, I’m not interested, I don’t want to put my money there.” And I would say, “For a month, don’t play any music in your home or office, don’t read a book, take down your art and tell me how you would feel, without have any of that stimulation.” Of course, I always got a check!

If you think about that, I think people would just feel empty without the arts.

J.O.: Think about the conditions in Europe in the years under communism. Their architecture was dull, the music was third rate, dance was suppressed. We see the results of not recognizing and supporting the arts when you look at communist-ruled countries.

M.: We need music and art – our souls need it.

Q: Any parting words?

J.O.: I think we need to recognize that there are so many over the years who have contributed so much time and so much money and have done as much as we have done. They should be recognized for their contributions.

M.: They ought to be sitting here with us today.