Donna Stewart and Mike Schiele are a match made at Hampton University in Virginia. Donna was a premier dancer of Terpsichorean fame (Hampton’s student dance company), and she had supreme sense of humor: standup funny, sitcom ready, entertainment bound. Everyone knew that Donna had jokes—just not when it came down to Mike.
They met her second day on campus. He was her student leader (a junior), and she a freshmen. Being from New Jersey, considering herself laid-back, she thought, “This dude talks way too much… he needs to calm down,” she laughs. “That was my first impression.”
Donna, too cool for school, ignored the fact that Mike was interested in her. And he thought she was out of his league. So in his mind, he’d moved on. Donna says, “He started liking my best friend.” Not so funny. “I got mad.”
When Mike heard of her interest he was surprised. “Donna likes… who?!”, he remembers. “She doesn’t even talk to me!” The couple started dating.
The longer they dated, Mike noticed, “Whatever I needed, Donna was always there to help me. No matter what it was.” Mike was in ROTC in college, which means his college life came with disciplines not required of collegiate “civilians.” He remembers, “I was trying to pack for field training. I was tired, I was frustrated. She packed my military gear—a very specific list of items—for me. She would just do these things and never bat an eye.”
Donna took their relationship seriously. “I’d never had a real boyfriend like that before.” Her best friend told her one day: “Donna, your favorite question is, ‘Where’s Mike?’ ” “I was pretty struck by Mike, but I wasn’t that aware of myself,” she says.
Mike asked Donna to marry him when he was a senior and Donna was a sophomore. Her parents liked Mike, but they wanted to know “why so soon?” Mom wanted her to date more before making such a decision. Not to mention, Dad thought Mike was trying to lock down his daughter way too soon.
“My dad said, ‘if you’re the one for him, then he can wait!’ ” Donna wasn’t having it. She was in love and determined. But in hindsight, she confides, “I would have married later. We were so young! At 21, you think you know everything. Wise people are trying to tell you stuff and you’re like ‘I’m marrying him, deal with it.’ As a 42-year-old looking back, it’s just too young. ” She realizes it all led to some problems later on. “I had to learn not to worship him the way I used to.”
Donna and Mike have two sons: David Michael and Daniel Marcus. David is an eloquent 17-year-old. “If I’m half the father mine is when I become a father, then I’m doing a good job,” he says. A Falcons fan, he plans to be a sports broadcast journalist. Style-conscious Daniel, 13, plays the sax and is learning the piano. Both young men run the media department at their church. Mike says, “I have two amazing boys. I like how they handle themselves around adults.”
While living in Atlanta, the family had a car accident. A bad one, of the type where good Samaritans get out of their cars to help. Still, crying never crossed Donna’s mind. She dealt with the situation at hand: all the men of her family were in danger.
Recalling his wife during the near tragedy, Mike reflects. “Donna demonstrated no fear. She was rock solid. People were running to help us. Donna was directing traffic, directing people, and they were doing what she said.” He could hear his son David, screaming in the back seat. “The only thing I wanted to do was turn around and comfort my son, but I couldn’t. I was pinned. I could barely breathe [due to a punctured lung and broken ribs].”
Daniel had facial lacerations that didn’t require stitching. Donna told Mike that David was fine to comfort him. Truth was, David was in critical condition. Only age 7 at the time, he had severe lacerations in his head, missing skin on his face and a broken leg. “He still has a scar on his face, but I think it’s made him stronger person,” Donna says. “I’m in awe of David’s strength.”
Around age 35, “the Donna that people knew who was funny and laughing was gone. I didn’t like that,” she says. “Obviously, I’m a mom and a wife. I do think that added to my character. But I started to lose who I was. Then I realized, I am Donna Marie Stewart! I need to be me. There are some things I want to do. I want to be in entertainment.”
So she went to the Connecticut Broadcasting School in Atlanta. Donna always wanted to do radio. She taught during the day and worked as a radio personality at night. “I put everything into it. I did very well in Atlanta.”
When they moved to Indianapolis, where they now live, she quickly got another job at Radio One’s WTLC. Still working double-duty as educator and radio host, she’s also exercising her acting skills on TV in Indiana.
Married 20 years, Donna says, “Mike makes lots of sacrifices. He thinks about the family first in his decision-making.” As a husband, “He’s very loving. He’s always been that way.” He’s also her biggest cheerleader. “My biggest fan! Sometimes I have to calm him down. I’m like, ‘Mike, stop, don’t nobody want to hear about me!’”
Working as a financial planner at a firm that manages over $600 million in assets, Mike’s clients average a net worth between four and six million dollars. “What I have seen is if the parents have it, the children have it,” he continues. “Wealth is a function of generational accumulation. Wealth rarely happens in a single generation. Unfortunately, that’s what has happened with Black American people. We’re on a single—not multi-generational—plan.”
As a father, Mike has altered his parenting manner from military-style strict to introspective, a man his sons can comfortably talk to. Maybe healing dialogue he’s had with his own father was the impetus. “Because of my relationship with my dad, there are some things I’ve repeated,” he says. “Much time has passed, so my father and I have had these conversations where I have asked him, ‘What happened then?’ and ‘What happened here?’ He gives me his perception, I give him mine, and we come to an understanding. So when I approach my sons, I say, ‘Here are the mistakes I’ve made. Don’t make the same ones. You make new mistakes. Stand on my shoulders.’ ”
The couple each serve as ordained ministers and overseers of Creflo Dollar’s satellite church in Indianapolis. (With churches in Atlanta and New York City, there are 21 satellites throughout the country.) “What makes his ministry so attractive to me is the practicality of the Word. He explains the Bible in a way that is relatable. Talk to me as a person, a professional, and help me practically live this life I’m committed to.”
Like Donna said, Mike’s responsibility for the progression of the Schieles is foremost in her husband’s mind. “I consider my family first in anything I do. If I have to take a loss financially, socially, even ego-wise, I will. I want my family to say, ‘He is everything we need, when we need it.’ ”
The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, The Coolest Black Family is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider: family doesn't always mean mother + father + kids. What defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as we crisscross the country in search of kinfolk whose cool is so palpable and real, it comes second only to their love. Think your cool fam qualifies? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org (with Coolest Black Family in the subject line)!
Joicelyn Dingle travels to find the Coolest Black Family in America exclusively for EBONY.com. She splits her time between Savannah and Brooklyn. She is currently completing a documentary on the making of Honey magazine and the 1990s urban publishing era. Friend her on Facebook.