Ron's Tribute to Julie

Husband Ron's tribute to during the funeral service by Sister Rachel and Brother John:

Julie’s husband, Ron, would like to offer a personal tribute to the very special woman who has been both his wife and best friend for over 30 years…

Most of you are here today because you have been touched in one way or another by Julie’s indomitable spirit. Though in constant physical pain for most of her adult life, Julie was never one to complain. Instead, Julie would focus on the positive, offering words of encouragement and support to those around her…always in tune to the needs of others.

Over the years, many people encouraged Julie to write a book, detailing her struggles and triumphs in the face of repeated adversity – both personal and professional. Upon her retirement after 37 years of service to Cairo School District Number One, Ron brought up the “book thing”, saying that this would be a good time for such an endeavor. In an effort to spur Julie’s literary efforts, Ron decided to kick start the venture by writing a preface for a proposed autobiography of her life to be entitled “Who Knew?”

As you all well know, however, Julie was a “doer”…a “dancer” if you will…not one to sit it out. She had no interest in focusing on herself or the past; she had more important things to do. For instance, Julie took her famous “cooking show” on the road, preparing and taking food to her fellow chemo patients to boost their emotional and physical well-being. So a book never materialized…as Julie continued to add new chapters to her amazing life.

So, rather than eulogize Julie from the perspective of her passing, Ron would like to share the words that he penned for his beloved on a day of happiness shortly after her retirement...

Who Knew?

A Preface

In September of 1969, I was standing guard at Fortress CHS when a young lady knocked at the door. I walked down the stairs, opened the door, and welcomed her…to the rest of my life. Who knew…that this African American woman would totally transform the life of a “young and dumb” white teacher.

For the past 37 years, I have watched in awe as event after life-changing event have transpired to totally consume two innocent and naïve people trying to live quiet and unassuming lives. John Lennon, in his last album, gave prophetic advice to his young son, Sean, that “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” To this oh-so-true wisdom, I would only add that you don’t have to be making plans…you don’t even have to have a clue! Life happens…

After spending a quarter of a century as a mostly unappreciated secretary/bookkeeper while actually “running” a small Southern Illinois high school - standing up for folks that often wouldn’t stand up for themselves – Julie Newell incurred the wrath of the “powers that be” and was banished to sell school supplies at an elementary school…to “put her in her place”. While fighting for HER rights – under the American Disabilities Act – she suffered a major flare of her lupus condition and almost died. Julie spent the next two years bed-ridden, trying to “rest up” and gain strength…only to grow weaker with each passing day.

As I spent my long nights, alternately checking her breathing and playing Free Cell, I wondered if this was how it was to end…a young life given to putting others ahead of self…making the ultimate sacrifice with no personal recognition and only vicarious satisfaction.

Some of our school friends came to the house during this period and presented Julie with an African American doll that they dubbed “Jobetta”…in recognition of her positive outlook, maintained in the face of constant trials and tribulations.

Friends and colleagues constantly asked me…“How does she do it…how does she deal with this?” My simple two-fold response…“What’s the alternative? We take it one day at a time.” After yet another health setback…many people told Julie that “God must have a special plan for you…a special reason for bringing you through these crises.” Others would offer encouragement, reminding her that “As one door closes, another one opens”.

Then…the phone rang.

When I answered, it was our friend, Ken – a UniServ Director for the Illinois Education Association. Ken told me that he had touted Julie’s untapped energies and talents to an official of the National Education Association and that this person had recently called saying that a new task force was to be established that would criss-cross the country, informing educational support professionals about the 1997 Individuals With Disabilities In Education Act. This person was now asking for Julie’s telephone number so that she could invite her to be a member of the task force. Since Ken knew of Julie’s latest medical problems, he didn’t know how to respond; thus, the phone call to me. Knowing that total bed rest was not working, I told Ken to have the NEA representative call Julie…to explain what would be required of her…to let her make the decision. After the telephone conference, Julie told me what was involved and asked what I thought about her doing it. I replied “Look, what we have been doing is not working…you spend your days in bed…in pain…and getting weaker. It’s time to try something different.” Well…that was all Julie needed to hear!

Julie served on that committee…starting out using a wheelchair and a cane for travel. However, within a few short months, Julie cast aside those supports and literally ran her co-presenters ragged.

Given that taste of “life outside of Cairo”, Julie went on to make history by becoming the first African American to be elected to the Board of Trustees of the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund. Julie was subsequently elected to two terms on the Board of Directors of the Illinois Education Association, turning down a third term when she chose early retirement. During this time period, Julie also served on numerous state and national committees.

On the occasion of Julie’s retirement, I told our assembled colleagues the story of that fateful September day, 37 years ago, when I opened a door that would totally transform our lives. After reading this book, you will understand why those that have come into contact with Julie so greatly admire and respect her. Her determination and bravery in the face of repeated setbacks give others the inspiration to push forward.

Upon her retirement, I promised to open the door to the next phase of Julie’s life. What will the future bring? Only God knows!

Ron would now add a final footnote…

Who Knew? God knew! God knew at that time that Julie was near the end of her journey. God knew that Julie had fulfilled her purpose in life and that it was soon time for her to cast aside the frailties of the body and rejoice in everlasting peace. During the past couple of months, I have come to the conclusion that Julie’s final fight was not even about her. It was God’s way of telling all of us that it was time to let her go…to say our final painful, goodbyes…that her labor of love was finished. We will all miss her dearly…her precious smile and her ready laugh…bringing us strength and comfort when we were having a bad day. We have been truly blessed to walk in the presence of one of God’s angels.

December was Julie’s favorite month. Always a believer that it was more blessed to give than receive, Julie pulled out all stops for the holidays. Santa Claus may have had his elves and a reindeer-powered sleigh, but Julie easily kept up with QVC and UPS! When I sit down to this year’s annual showing of the holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life”, I will be reminded of Julie…leading her own wonderful life…oblivious to the profound impact that she had on the lives of others. And…at the end of the movie, when the little ornamental bell rings, I will be reminded of Julie’s Cairo School District retirement bell…and that when she rang it, without knowing it, God was announcing to one and all that Julie A. Newell had earned her wings.

Atta girl, Julie!