The death of musician and social activist David Deon Stuart stuns the Wausau community

WAUSAU – The music was still there, and the man could to sing.

And it was the music he performed with bands like Unified Soul and The Soul Inspirations that raised David Deon Stuart’s profile in Wausau and across the state.

But those who worked with him and loved him say it’s his work for social justice in central Wisconsin that will be the foundation of his legacy.

Stuart died of a heart attack at his home on August 3. He was 54 and his unexpected death leaves many people processing his loss and looking for ways to ensure his message of equality, peace and love lives on.

Stuart has been involved in efforts to bring racial equity and social justice to Wausau. He and his close friend and fellow activist Christopher Norfleet founded People For The Power of Love, a grassroots organization that aimed to promote empathy among local people of different races and socio-economic groups.

Stuart was also active in Toward One Wausau, an initiative launched by the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service, which aimed to bring people from diverse backgrounds to talk about perceptions and attitudes about an increasingly diverse community.

In 2017, Stuart told the Wausau Daily Herald that racial tensions can often lead to different levels of conflict, sometimes interpersonal, sometimes political, sometimes physical. The key, he said, was to confront these issues openly.

“If you don’t know there’s a problem, no one is working for a solution,” Stuart said. “If it’s hidden, people just put bandages on it and ignore it.”

Stuart always sought to do this difficult work from a position of love, which he defined for the newspaper as understanding, compassion and selflessness. “No shame. No blame,” he said.

Her ultimate goal was “to make this world a more welcoming place for everyone, no matter the color of your skin or your financial situation,” said Lisa Stuart, wife of David Deon Stuart of 20 years.

“David’s whole presence in this community was to inspire change through compassion and love and to accept people where they are,” she said.

One of the reasons he was able to do it with such empathy and understanding, Lisa Stuart said, was that he knew what it was like to hit rock bottom. There was a period of time in their marriage when David was addicted to drugs.

“He made mistakes,” Lisa Stuart said. “He did a lot of things he would never have done properly.”

They broke up for a while at worst, she said. She told him he had to leave the house in order to force him to come to terms with his addiction, and he did.

Even when he recovered and found his footing, David never denied his struggles. Instead, he used them to propel his social justice mission. “He would never hesitate to find out the truth,” Lisa Stuart said.

She never considered divorce, she said: “My heart would ache for him, but I never wanted to condemn him because I knew in his heart that he was good. … God has it put it through so he could be such a caring, compassionate person. We became the people we are and our marriage became stronger.

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Stuart saw the music as part of a message of love

David Deon Stuart was already established as a musician and stepping up his social justice work when Norfleet met him. It didn’t take long for them to find common cause and develop a friendship.

“Coming together in this way has already given us a bit more of an organized base to build from,” Norfleet said. “It (their friendship) grew quickly, because we were aligned on the principles of love and right and wrong.”

Stuart’s addiction journey gave him a “passion for redemption, (a) a passion for people to do better,” Norfleet said.

Norfleet was more interested in social justice causes than Stuart’s music, but Stuart always viewed the music and the cause as two parts of a whole. Gradually, Norfleet said, he began to see more clearly the value of his friend’s music and how it fit together to create a message.

Prior to 2020, the two were planning a kind of presentation on social justice, which would use music and speech and their experiences to help persuade people to employ understanding and empathy for a greater good. They also aimed, Norfleet said, to encourage people not just to help others, but to examine their own biases and prejudices.

Their philosophy was based on the idea that people can’t change others without also “looking within themselves,” Norfleet said.

Like Lisa Stuart, Norfleet said he was still stunned by the loss of his friend.

“He was a sincere light in the community,” Norfleet said, and noted that he felt a bit at sea, not knowing how to get ahead in the work on his own.

“There were times when we encountered a lot of resistance,” Norfleet said. “Having him is what really made me want to keep fighting.”

Lisa Stuart said she would work to ensure her husband’s legacy and ideals endure, and she said she would create a David Deon memorial foundation.

She is comforted, she says, by the life she and David have shared.

“It was a beautiful love story,” she said. “We loved each other. It was honest and raw and so hard at times. But it was good. … We had a lot of struggles in our lives. We held on and we persevered and we wouldn’t have changed a thing.”

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Contact Keith Uhlig at 715-845-0651 or kuhlig@gannett.com. Follow him @UhligK on Twitter and Instagram or on Facebook.

This article originally appeared on Wausau Daily Herald: Unified Soul, Soul Inspirations Wausau singer David Deon Stuart dies