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Hernando County activist Bill Newell

Bill Newell collected donated trumpets for the Spring Hill Boys & 
Girls Club and for New Orleans musicians after Hurricane Katrina.

Keri Wiginton | Times (2005)

Bill Newell collected donated trumpets for the Spring Hill Boys & Girls Club and for New Orleans musicians after Hurricane Katrina.

SPRING HILL — After a summer of escalating racial tension in 1990, more than 200 Ku Klux Klan and skinhead demonstrators chanted on the front steps of the Hernando County Courthouse in Brooksville, near a statue of a Confederate soldier.

Of the two groups, the skinheads had the greater reputation for violence, even embedding razor blades in the toes of their combat boots.

A few blocks away, a bespectacled hypnotherapist led a "community family festival" that drew more than 1,000 people, some of them carrying signs.

The Hernando County Sheriff's Office kept the pro- and anti-Klan forces apart. Even if they hadn't, teacher and meditation counselor Bill Newell, a founder of the Brotherhood/Sisterhood Association that organized the counter demonstration and a man with passionate beliefs, was no agitator.

He was, however, an activist who participated — and usually led — virtually every civic organization that crossed his path, often accompanied by his wife.

"Just about any meeting you go to, there would be Bill and Carol Newell," said Tom Mylander, Hernando County's sheriff during the 1990 demonstrations.

Mr. Newell, a former school guidance counselor who threw himself into causes, died Monday at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point of a stroke. He was 86.

After moving to Hernando County in 1978, he was a president of the Spring Hill central chapter of the Rotary Club, attending every meeting for 16 years; as well as Spring Hill chapters of the Lions, Optimist and Toastmasters clubs. He was one of a handful of white members of the African American Club of Hernando County.

Many of his causes were not political. A trumpet player who loved Dixieland jazz, Mr. Newell somehow got donated trumpets into the hands of children.

"He'd come in and say, 'I've got a couple of trumpets. Is there anyone here who would be interested in learning how to play?' " said Josh Kelly, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Hernando County.

After Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Newell set up a comparable program to get instruments to New Orleans musicians.

Mr. Newell stood 5 feet 6 and wore black-framed glasses that stood out on a shaved head. He was born in Syracuse, N.Y., the son of two American Indians, a full-blooded Penobscot father and a Mohawk mother.

"I think that informed a lot of my dad's passions about diversity, without a doubt," said his son, Martin Newell, 59.

At age 11, Mr. Newell talked his father, an anthropology professor, into getting him a trumpet.

Mr. Newell served with the Army in Korea. He studied English, psychology and journalism at several colleges, including Duke University, picking up a bachelor's degree from the University of Tampa and a master's at the University of South Florida. From 1953 to 1969, he taught at Hillsborough County elementary schools.

In the 1970s, Mr. Newell directed a counseling center and started the Foundation for Effective Living, a nonprofit organization that offered meditation to the public. He also directed the North Tampa Counseling Center.

He hosted a local television show, Speaking Out: Straight Talk with Bill Newell, which started in 1999. Carol, his wife since 1946, booked the guests, who often represented the arts in Hernando County.

Bill and Carol Newell both embraced the Bahai Faith, which preaches global unity, a vision he tried to apply locally at almost every turn.

"He dreamed big," said Dori Peloquin, a fellow Bahai member. "In meetings, if we wanted to do something little, he usually came out with something dramatic. We'd say, 'Let's do this little event in a park.' And Bill would be like, 'Let's do a big thing, let's call in the newspapers.' He just went all out. That's how he lived."

Besides his trumpet program, Mr. Newell looked out for young people as a guidance counselor at Springstead High School in Spring Hill, where he worked from 1978 until his retirement in the mid 1980s.

In 1992, two years after Mr. Newell helped organize a festival to counter the Klan rally, the president of the Spring Hill Civic Association came under fire for making an anti-Semitic comment.

After many residents called for his resignation in the St. Petersburg Times, the civic leader got some unlikely help.

"There are groups in the county that are actively addressing the problem of prejudice in young and old," Mr. Newell challenged readers in his own letter. "Are you part of one of these groups?

"Condemn if you must," he concluded, "but if you can go the step beyond and actually do something about the problem, you will be contributing to a better community and a better world."

Mr. Newell continued hosting Straight Talk and playing in a jazz improvisational group until health problems took a toll a couple of years ago. He held onto his cheerful demeanor, even after Carol died in 2008 and he moved to Bayonet Point Health and Rehabilitation Center.

His impact is still being felt at the Spring Hill Boys & Girls Club, where young musicians can practice on any of 17 donated trumpets.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

.Biography

William D. Newell

Born: Oct. 22, 1923.

Died: June 14, 2010.

Survivors: Son Martin; daughter Debbie; brother Louis; sisters Joyce Sondheim and Diane Leary; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Service: To be arranged.

Hernando County activist Bill Newell 06/17/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 17, 2010 9:56pm]

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