W. Newell Hendricks, born on February 23, 1943 in Los Angeles, California, died peacefully in his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Friday, April 3, 2015, after a long struggle with cancer. His wife and his two daughters were with him.
As a young adult in the 1960s facing the draft, Newell drew on his Presbyterian upbringing. He read the Bible front to back while hitch hiking across the country, and presented an essay to the draft board outlining why, as a Christian, he refused to fight. Though the argument didn’t go over well with the board, and he was subsequently forced to dodge the draft nine times, Newell had made a choice that would guide him throughout his life: to live what he called “a moral life.” Newell drew on his idealism and strong moral compass to live a vibrant and productive life unapologetically outside the mainstream.
Newell was an artist in every aspect of his life, but he lived out this dimension most fully as a composer. He received his graduate degree in musical composition at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he met his wife of 45 years, Barbara Englesberg. After staying on as faculty at UCSB’s College of Creative Studies in a position he designed for himself, Newell went on to receive a Doctorate of Musical Arts from Boston University. Newell’s major works include the oratorio, El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation, with poet Denise Levertov, supported by a grant from the Massachusetts Council on the Arts, and two operas, The Cell and Ascona, written with the Boston Theater Group, and supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Earlier works include the opera Cain, and a concerto for violin written for his wife, a superb violinist.
Though never ordained as a minister, Newell led a deeply spiritual life. A member of Church of the Covenant for over thirty-five years, Newell served in a variety of roles including minister of music, sexton, deacon, council member, and president of the congregation. Newell was a key member in the congregation’s sister relationship with a rural church community in Dulce Nombre de Jesus, Nicaragua, traveling there over 20 times in the last 19 years, and working to build authentic relationships across cultures. Newell’s experience in Nicaragua led him to further apply his theology toward political action, working tirelessly for economic justice, immigrant rights, and action in the face of climate change.
Newell did things you just aren’t supposed to do. He rode his bike regularly, with no fancy gear, in all weather, to western Massachusetts from his home in Boston. He hiked mountains with nothing but a topographical map. He sewed entire wardrobes, including three prom dresses for his daughter Anna, by making up his own patterns out of newspaper. He used his chainsaw and a chalk line to mill boards from large pine trees fallen after a storm. Never one to buy things, he took great pleasure in making what he needed from the refuse or natural resources he found around him- braiding beautiful wool rugs from cast off coats, sewing quilts from fabric scraps and his old clothing, devising a roof rack for his car using a snow scraper as an integral structural element, and building two houses and a cabin with wood, stone, and mortar from the land they sit on and his own hand-drawn set of architectural plans.
After being diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer in 2010, Newell continued to live his life with the same vigor as always, constantly assessing what he was and was not capable of doing as his body got weaker, and living as fully as possible within those limits. In his last year of life, with metal rods running through his spine from multiple surgeries, Newell continued to bike everywhere he could, traveled to Nicaragua with 17 family members, continued to make repairs on his house, wrote several children’s stories for his granddaughters, planted and harvested from his vegetable garden, made wine from the grapes in his yard, and completed and published his memoirs, Normal: Stories from My Life, (Outskirts Press, 2014). In November, 2014 he wrote the following poem.
The Things I Can Still Do
“I can sit.
I can lie down.
I can talk while sitting or lying.
Sitting, I can write letters to my nieces
Who lost their father this past summer.
Sitting, I can save a booth at the café for a friend
Who first takes her children to school.
Lying down, I can nap with my young granddaughter
So my wife can practice or get some exercise.
Lying down, I can pray, thinking of all those I know
With love in my heart.
Sitting or lying, I can make sure there are no unsaid words
To my daughters, after adolescence.
Sitting or lying down, I can express love for my wife
Who gives me all I could ever need.
And I can require nothing of others that isn’t necessary.”
Newell has inspired many many people in his life and will be greatly missed. He will be remembered by family and friends for his passion for justice, deep thoughtfulness, sense of humor, love of adventure, musical brilliance, and devoted care for his loved ones. He is survived by his wife, Barbara Englesberg; his daughter Anna Hendricks, her partner Toby Briggs, and their daughter, Vita; his daughter Clara Hendricks, her husband Jake Carman, and their daughter Bridget; his sister Ann Woolcott and her husband Tom, and many nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews. He is predeceased by his mother Louise Hendricks, his father George Hendricks, and his brother Brad Hendricks. A memorial service will be held in late May at The Church of The Covenant in Boston. Donations in his memory can be made to a project that was very close to Newell’s heart: preserving and recording some of the core music at the heart of liberation theology in the communities of the Delegation of the Word in Nicaragua. Donations may be sent to Service Is the Water, Inc. PO Box 103, Damascus, MD 20872, with “music project” in the memo line.