As a child, cultural education came through global travels, such as a sixth birthday celebration in Mexico City. But for the Columbus woman, it also came with a collection of custom-made, ethnically dressed Barbie dolls, hand-me-downs of the classic figurine once used in a local historical and ethnic display.

Rachel Stewart, 56, daughter of Ethnic Expo founder Barbara Stewart and the grand marshal of Saturday’s Expo parade, soaked up a conglomeration of culture as a child.

“Really, there’s nothing like travel to broaden your perspective,” Stewart said. “But my parents (including Robert N. Stewart, the late former mayor) knew they couldn’t exactly give everybody in town an airline ticket.”

But Barbara Stewart, amid Columbus’ growing international workforce, launched Expo in 1984 as a food-and-entertainment avenue to bring the world to Columbus’ doorstep. In its history, it has highlighted Japanese drummers, Caribbean dishes, Mexican fashion, African jewelry — all thanks to a multitude of food booths, an international bazaar and even a children’s kite fly for a number of years.

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“You can’t just educate people,” Barbara Stewart would say, as her daughter recalled. “You’ve got to entertain them.”

So before her death in 2003, the Expo founder and her crew did just that, booking singers, dancers, strolling musicians and others to open people’s eyes to the wider world — and to commonalities within us all. Sometimes, a festival performer’s songs or dances have reflected a specific part of the performer’s nation, customs or beliefs.

Call it a classroom with a funky melody. Or maybe a textbook lesson with a solid rhythm.

Jack Schmeckebier worked on the Expo kite fly for several years with Barbara Stewart, such a kid at heart that she stored kites in her car truck should she wish to catch the wind on a moment’s notice. He was excited to hear the founder’s daughter would be a central figure in the weekend parade.

“That’s just great,” the Columbus man said. “That’s a wonderful idea.”

Schmeckebier remembers Barbara Stewart as “the best-organized person I’ve ever seen lead a meeting,” ironing out festival details with remarkable efficiency.

Rachel Stewart, who moved back home from San Francisco 10 years ago to help her aging father, who died in June, has purposely avoided the limelight. But when Mayor Kristen Brown asked her to be the face of Saturday’s procession, how could she say no?

“I saw this as a really nice way to pay tribute to my parents,” said the daughter, who sported an amber and turquoise Southwestern necklace from her mom. “I’m such a private person that I’m a little embarrassed. But this was the most visible thing they did together.”

And maybe the most widely known, considering that estimates for Expo crowds have ranged from 30,000 to 45,000 for the full weekend.

Rachel Stewart herself has made time for Expo strolls among the food and merchandise booths. Besides, the woman who once ran her own West Coast chef and catering business called Kitchen Magician has loved the dining options.

Sometimes she walked through the lineup of choices with her dad at her side while he wore a Bavarian hat.

“Being a foodie, I’ve always thought it was great to have a chance to try so many things,” Rachel Stewart said. “When it comes to eating, I like a lot of spice, a lot of crunch, a lot of color and a lot of flavor.”

She will approach the festival with a measure of wistfulness, though. As much as she loves her hometown, she plans to leave next year. She’s uncertain just yet where she will move.

Could be Belize. Might be Thailand. Possible it will be Portugal.

Somehow, for the woman raised by parents with a global perspective, that seems altogether fitting.

If you go

What: Ethnic Expo, Columbus’ annual international festival featuring food, music, children’s activities and an international bazaar with items ranging from jewelry to handbags. Held rain or shine.

When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Where: First and Washington streets, downtown Columbus.

Admission: Free. Food costs vary from $1 for some single items to about $5 to $7 for complete meals.

Organizer: City of Columbus.

Title sponsor: First Financial Bank.

Parking: Various downtown lots, including City Hall, downtown streets and the parking garages.

Information: ethnicexpo.org.

Ethnic Expo parade

When: 11 a.m. Saturday

Route: Entries assemble in the Cummins parking lot on Brown Street and at Mill Race Park. Parade winds through downtown Columbus, beginning at Eighth and Brown streets then heading east on Eighth, south on Washington Street past The Commons, west on Third Street and north on Brown Street until the parade ends near Fifth Street.

Entries: 50 entries are registered, including bands, motorized-performing entries, pre-1960 classic cars, classic cars 1960 and newer, community youth groups, community religion groups, adult community groups and businesses — with prizes in each category. Also watch for floats, walkers, bicyclists and a horse-and-carriage entry.

Parade rules: No throwing of candy from parade entries, but walkers can distribute items to people lining the route.

Ethnic Expo host country: Pakistan’s float will be near the beginning of the parade.

On the Web

Details on food vendors, other activities at ethnicexpo.org/.

About Rachel Stewart

Age: 56.

Hometown: Columbus.

Parents: The late Robert N. and Barbara Stewart.

Latest role: Grand marshal of Columbus

Partner: Jim Earl.

Education: Franklin College.

Involvement: Leads area yoga and spirituality classes. Previously was a chef and caterer in San Francisco.

Author photo
Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.