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Jo Stewart waves goodbye to a friend as she laughs during a meeting of the Laughing Club in Solon Springs in this 2010 photograph. Stewart was killed in a car accident in Solon Springs last week. (Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Laughter goes on

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In the words of Josephine “Jo” Stewart, “Those who laugh, last.” Although 85-year-old Stewart, founder of the Solon Springs Laughing Club, was killed in a car accident last week, the laughter goes on.

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“I only told one friend that I would go to laugh in our place on Main Street Thursday, as usual,” said Viola LaBounty of Solon Springs. “That’s what Jo would want and expect, for laughter to continue even when she isn’t there.”

She wasn’t alone. About 20 people gathered to chuckle, chortle and attempt Stewart’s trademark belly laugh, which got her thrown out of a movie theater once as a teen.

“Jo was just a blessing to us all, her smile and her laughter were so contagious and truly the best medicine,” said Wendie Johnson, a neighbor of Stewart’s. “She always put a smile on my face and warm feeling in my heart.”

“The laughing thing was Jo,” said Richard Blood, pastor of Pioneer Parish, which includes Stewart’s home church, First Presbyterian of Solon Springs. “She was one of the warmest, most accepting people you’d ever know.” Whether you were 4 or 104, Blood said, she made you feel welcome.

Stewart was also an English teacher who touched the lives of countless students at Northwestern High School.

“So many people are who and what they are because of her,” said English teacher Pat Luostari, who taught and advised drama and forensics with Stewart. “If you teach young people, you should care, and she did. She influenced a lot of students.”

Luostari said she misses their morning greetings most: “First there would be a big smile, then a big hug, then get on with your work.

Johnson, a former student, said the Solon Springs laugher was one of her favorite teachers.

“I learned so much from her … not to be afraid to be yourself; to take chances, to reach for and achieve your goals.” Johnson said.

“I remember her smile, it seemed to go from ear to ear and her eyes would twinkle (almost as if she were up to something),” said Mati Rodriquez, a former student. “I remember that she made each student feel important and took time to talk to you as a person, not just a student.”

And, those who knew her agreed, Stewart was ageless.

“At 85, she’s about as full of life as anyone you’d ever known,” Blood said.

As Stewart herself wrote in a Senior Class column, published in the Telegram, “Should I decide to write a memoir for my children and grandchildren, I might call it, ‘How at 80 I’ve managed to stay so silly.’”

“We laughed so much together, the two of us, over the years,” Luostari said. “We didn’t just laugh once a week.”

Yet there was, she said, a wonderful, quiet depth to Stewart.

“People think of her as high energy and she was,” Luostari said, but she was also sensitive and kind, with a deep faith that shone through in everything she did.

Many people got to know Stewart through her writing, following her Senior Class tales about unwanted hair, memory loss, coping with new technology and her cantankerous cat Blackie.

The prolific writer helped found St. Croix Writers. For three decades, CJ Swanson of Bennett attended that writing group with Stewart.

“In my life I have been privileged to know women who had spirits so bright, others light their candles from them,” Swanson said. Stewart was that kind of friend, encouraging and supportive. She even brought Swanson back to the stage. Today, the group will hold its first meeting without Stewart.

“We cannot allow Jo’s legacy to be forgotten,” said fellow writer Charles Shingledecker. “We must keep doing what she wanted all of us to do. Be out there in the community. Be a part of something bigger than our own little self-absorbed worlds. And be there for each other.”

Luostari said she has missed Stewart since the Solon Springs teacher retired, but her influence lives on.

“She’s here very vitally every day of my life in school,” Luostari said. “She and Ms. Tartar are what I do. They have been wonderful mentors.”

Perhaps the laughing lady herself summed it up best in a column about her cat Blackie, whose motto seemed to be “Unless you made the rules, ignore them.”

“That’s the way Blackie lived his no nonsense long life, and that’s the way he died,” Stewart wrote. “He walked out the front door with his tail up and his head held high and marched into eternity. I think I heard him say to me as he left, ‘Just get on with it. Kid.’”

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