Longtime NEK educator, Graham Newell, dies at 92

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(Host): Graham Newell a seventh generation Vermonter and iconic educator from the Northeast Kingdom, has died in Saint Johnsbury at the age of 92.

Over many decades, Graham Newell was known as a historian, Latin teacher and chair of the social sciences department at Lyndon State College.

He was a member of the town Republican Committee for 33 years and served for many years in the Vermont Legislature as a state representative and senator. He was also a founding member of the Vermont civil liberties union.

In his long life, which came to an end last Friday, he earned many accolades. Among them was an honorary doctorate from the University of Vermont in 2006.

VPR’s Steve Delaney has this remembrance.

(Delaney) In a house full of antiques in St. Johnsbury, an inconspicuous gem hangs on the wall of a hallway.

It’s a framed piece of needlework, done by a teenaged girl who migrated north from southern New England in the 1790s. She was Graham Newell’s great great great grandmother, and she was part of the reason that he could proudly claim to be a seventh generation Vermonter.

Newell: I can take you to Caledonia County cemeteries, many of them out in fields and pastures, uh, all my eight great grandparents are buried in this county, my sixteen great-greats are buried here, and my thirty two three-greats are all buried somewhere here in Caledonia County.

(Delaney) The descendant of all those great-great-great grandparents became an educator and politician, and held just about every elected or appointed office available in St. Johnsbury and Caledonia County.

For his former student John Hall, who became Vermont’s Commissioner of Housing, Graham Newell was a role model and mentor.

(Hall) I grew up in St. Johnsbury, and so Graham Newell is one of those people, I guess I don’t know when I didn’t know him. And I remember Graham talking about the obligation we had, as educated students, and going out and being active citizens in our town. In fact he inspired many of us to get involved in local government. It really was something he felt compelled to do, and did it well.

(Delaney) Graham Newell taught history and Latin at the St. Johnsbury Academy in his twenties, and again in his nineties. In between he taught history at Lyndon State College. Newell was in the Vermont legislature for almost two decades, a justice of the peace for almost three, and a member or chairman of dozens of civic committees.

Vermont historian Howard Coffin encountered Newell in several of those roles, and once reflected on his old teacher in a VPR commentary.

(Coffin) It was my privilege 45 years past, to take a course in medieval history offered by Newell at Lyndon State Teachers’ College. I came to know Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard Coeur de Leon, the Venerable Bede, as living, breathing human beings. Later I encountered Newell while covering the Statehouse for the Rutland Herald. When word spread through the halls that Senator Newell of Caledonia County was about to speak, the Senate galleries quickly filled.

(Delaney) By 1980 Newell was out of the Legislature, but his other career and his civic involvement in St. Johnsbury, went on for decades, into his nineties. Again, John Hall.

(Hall) He certainly was a legend, not only in the Northeast Kingdom, but also I think statewide, but that’s not the way he would have seen himself.

(Delaney) Graham Newell was born into a very different St. Johnsbury, and a very different world, in 1915. In that year, Albert Einstein formulated his theory of relativity, Babe Ruth hit his first home run, they started building the Lincoln Memorial, and somebody in Detroit put up the first stop sign.

It was also a very different Vermont, a place that he often defined as, east of Montpelier.

(Newell) We, uh, never really got along with the other side of Vermont. Not only do the Green Mountains divide us, but our interests were always the Connecticut River Valley. Some of my own uh, biases are coming out now very quickly, right now here, because you see I’m one of those that, the minute I get beyond Montpelier, I never feel that I’m in Vermont. Never. My Vermont‘s here. Connecticut River Valley. The Northeast Kingdom.

(Hall) Graham really felt a sense that the Northeast Kingdom was the one piece of Vermont that was most like the Vermont that he remembered through his many years of being active.

(Delaney) Nobody ever saw Graham Newell drive a car. When he served in the Legislature, he conducted his classes at Lyndon State by phone from Montpelier. When he was in St. Johnsbury, there was always somebody to drive him around.

(Hall) In all the years that I knew him, he did not have a car, so, I was driving back and forth to St. Johnsbury and had the honor and the pleasure of chauffeuring him back and forth many times.
Once he got inside the car, and it was usually two or three students and him, he was just such an engaging guy, talking about everything, not just academics, but he was such a well rounded and well-informed person. I guess he was one of those teachers who was always teaching but you didn’t really know it.

(Delaney) There’s a building at Lyndon State with Graham Newell’s name on it. There’s a bagpipe band at St. Johnsbury Academy that carries his name. There are no more Newells in his line of descent, but the name lingers in the minds of the thousands of Vermonters whose lives he shaped.

(Hall) I can’t think of anybody like him, in my life-time. I can think of nobody that will attain the kind of status that Graham did, or left the footprint that Graham left, at the college, at the Academy, in St. Johnsbury and in the state of Vermont.

(Delaney) Graham Newell’s footprints still echo in all of Vermont, including the part he had to swallow hard to accept; that part west of the Green Mountains, where he thought the erosion of the true Vermont began with Ethan Allen, and has continued ever since.

For VPR News, I’m Steve Delaney.

(Host): A public memorial service for Graham Newell will be held on August 16th at 11:00a.m. in Fuller Hall at Saint Johnsbury Academy.



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