Guest columnist Jo Newman: He writes and fights for rights

Published: 8/7/2022 4:03:19 PM

Like all the great writers before him, he does it in a bathrobe. Sitting at the kitchen counter with the local and national newspapers spread out like he’s cracking the code of the Zodiac Killer, Bill’s thoughts, like a hamster on an ACLU-branded wheel, spin. Because he cares.

“Dale?” he calls out. Dale is making tea 36 inches away. She is the only other person in the kitchen. “I think I need to write my next column about the Supreme Court.” He’s deeply involved in justice, in all its forms. Because he cares about people. “Or my dad taking me to a Yankee game?” Dale adds a specific amount of almond milk to her mug. “I like the story about your father.” Bill furrows his brow, digesting the response. “What do you have against the Supreme Court?”

And thus begins the process of the Daily Hampshire Gazette monthly opinion column that Bill Newman has contributed on and off for the last 30 years. Every column centers around an issue that either has been percolating in his brain since the Vietnam War era or came to his attention seconds ago from a news app he doesn’t remember signing up for.

To say he cares is an understatement. He cares about injustice. Everywhere. He cares about the state of the natural world, about old people, young people, golden retrievers, and all of their civil rights. He cares about baseball and all of the things that Kevin Costner cared about in “Bull Durham.” He also cares about “Bull Durham,” because baseball movies, for 90 minutes, can make sense of the world. He might write a column about this.

He cares about small and large issues and, according to his brilliant and insightful daughters, is talented at turning the former into the latter. His column can be just that.

The first incarnation will be birthed on a yellow legal pad in handwriting only his mother, or, possibly the Zodiac Killer, could find legible. It will be crossed out, circled, and then blacked out like redacted top secret CIA records. But he persists. He will dig deep into his memory and vocabulary to transport his readers to Yankee Stadium in 1961. He will spend three hours finding the word to describe the perfect shade of Yankee blue. (Peacoat.) Then he will remember being upset about a player they traded. Then he will remember that he wrote a letter to the team’s owner when he was 10 or so and that the owner actually wrote him back. Then he will go find the letter. If you give a mouse a cookie ...

The column will be all-consuming, never finished, and due in four hours. “Dale?” Dale is now sitting in the driver’s seat, dropping him off at his office because, somehow, that is the only computer where this column can be typed, printed and emailed. Please don’t question this fact. “Yes?” Remember, she is now 6 inches away, and, also, again the only person in talking-to-distance. “Do you think that everyone knows who Tex Clevinger was?”

“It’s not really about baseball, it’s about your dad.” Bill thinks, momentarily disappointed that people may not remember Tex’s solid pitching career. He disappears into his 11-year-old self. His face relaxes. He momentarily forgets about the people and causes and injustices competing for his attention. That’s when Bill explodes with a laugh, face flushed, head shaking, removing his glasses to wipe his eyes. He turns to Dale, confused why she isn’t laughing too. “Dale?” he’ll say, realizing he didn’t tell the story out loud and that even with all her talents, she hasn’t mastered mind reading. “Did I ever tell you about…”

The memory is clear. You can see the technicolor of Yankee Stadium filled with New Yorkers on a hot summer day. You can hear the vendor’s gravelly voice hawking peanuts and feel the old, wooden seat. Bill relives the moment when a guy behind him took the foul ball he was just about to catch and how his father retrieved it. You can see the elation of the curly red-headed boy whose dad chewed out the baseball thief and how the leather of the game ball felt in his 11-year-old hands. You can imagine that memory streaking through his head when the sun gets in his eyes or he smells a hot dog or hears the crack of a bat hitting a home run.

His column will have a greater message. Maybe something about how summer memories are different. They attach to a different part of our brains. Perhaps because of the long days and the heat. Or how, 60 years later, they can make time stand still. One of mine is the summer of my 10th birthday, when my dad wrote a column about me.

The summer columns are for family. Even with all the things he cares about. Happy Birthday, Dad.

Jo Newman is the daughter of Bill Newman. She wrote this column for her father, who turns 72 on Monday.
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