Joe Newman turns 100 today. I met the local activist in the summer of 2012, when we were both guests on the same radio show. I was nearly floored when Joe told me he was less than six months from celebrating his 100th birthday, “if he made it.” Though obviously on in years, he was nonetheless sharp as a tack and fit as a fiddle. In fact, I would have given him even odds to me making my 38th just a few weeks before his big day. I’d had the man pegged in his early 80’s. But what impressed me most about Joe was not the preservation of his mental and physical faculties after 10 decades in this world, but his enormous passion for leaving a better one behind.
That day, we were panelists in a discussion on voting for third party candidates and whether conventional wisdom that it was akin to “throwing one’s vote away,” was valid. I argued and still believe that such is not the case, and that the only way we will ever truly improve our democracy is when enough of us stop caving to the threat of: if you don’t vote for me you’ll get the other guy. Joe, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat and proud of it, argued that the issues facing our nation were too serious and and too close to a tipping point to spend the decades likely needed to create a real third-party movement. We definitely didn’t dispute how grave things were on a whole host of fronts, but we decided to agree to disagree whether there existed a party in the modern political landscape which could offer meaningful political change.
Joe is one of a handful of staunch political activists I’ve met who manage to maintain a calm and welcoming composure even when arguing matters that are drenched in passionate conviction and sometimes even deeply personal in nature. I’ve always admired that trait, and to see it displayed by a man who says he counts his remaining time in days, rather than months and years, is a testament to patience we could all learn from. But Joe is impatient about change. Enough so, that he dedicates what remains of his time here in trying to make a difference anyway he can, maybe because he longs to go to rest comforted by feeling as though he has, maybe because he simply knows no other way.
Joe has spent his life working against the grain, fighting for what were often thought of as lost causes – and winning. He and his late wife Sophie founded the Logan Center. Started with only $24 and the dedication of a handful of parents of special needs children, the organization has gone on to help thousands and continues today, providing critical services that improve the quality of life of both children and adults living with such disabilities. Joe and Sophie’s interest in advancing the cause began when they gave birth to their daughter Rita Jo, who suffered from severe mental retardation caused by cerebral palsy.
Leaving such a child institutionalized for life was the norm at the time, but Joe and Sophie worked tirelessly to change social attitudes toward such disabilities. As hard as this is to imagine saying about middle-class people who started a small group with $24, today they are genuine pioneers, to whom the vastly improved treatment of and resources dedicated to those suffering from mental retardation can be attributed. In the beginning, their goal was to come together with other parents who were struggling through the profound challenges of raising a severely-disabled child with almost no support networks available. They made a pact: should anything happen to any of the parents, the others would do whatever necessary to ensure the child they left behind was spared the fate of institutionalization, the conditions of which could be horrid. Today, the Logan Center has helped changed tens of thousands of lives and continues to provide important services in the field.
Joe, who was also a pioneer of Social Security, going to work at the fledgling government institution just after its inception, believes in the social safety net and the simple edict that a society of plenty should be judged by the way it treats the least amongst it. Seeing himself as having benefited from the post World War II boom, he has earned a comfortable life and retirement from going to work, doing his job and simply putting a few bucks away when he could. But he doesn’t see the same opportunity existing today for most Americans and worries about the feudal attitudes that so many of his countrymen display. He’s always eager to engage in thoughtful and respectful debate and even founded a discussion group called The Nation, which meets at the Bradenton Central Library the first Monday of each month at 6 p.m. (and the Selby Library in downtown Sarasota the first Thursday at 6 p.m.). Joe can also be heard on 1490's the Robyn Report each Tuesday at 5 p.m.
Hearing Joe tell his story and seeing his eagerness to get out and engage members of his society invites the question of why that seems so quaint in our present age. Seniors regularly recount an era when every one of them belonged to a host of social clubs and fraternal organizations; when social networking wasn’t something you did in front of a computer screen. Talk to the seniors in Bradenton and they’ll tell you about each other, about the work they did to start this or that charity, to build this or that school. They’ll recount a time when you wouldn’t dare do business in town without belonging to the Kiwanis, the Elks, the Moose Lodge, VFW, American Legion, the Eagles, etc., etc., because no one would know who you were or what you stood for. I doubt we’ll ever wax nostalgic about Facebook and Twitter in the same way.
As Joe plows through the twilight of his life with the same dedicated intensity that has marked the rest of it, we should all take a lesson from his story. The result of living longer than most is that you experience loss and sorrow in epic amounts. Sophie and Rita Jo are long gone and it would be easy for Joe to cocoon himself in loneliness, self-pity and seclusion. But in a testament to the human spirit, something innate tells him to push on and do what he can to make this world better for billions of people he’ll never know in a fate that he’ll never get to see. If each of us took even a little of that into every day, imagine the kind of world we’d live in. Happy birthday Joe Newman, and thanks for being a living example of the best we can be.
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