Editor’s note: You can listen to Katy Mitchell perform Russell’s well-known song “Clam Rake” at the bottom of this article.
Ocracoke has lost one of its more colorful characters.
Russell Newell died June 5 from complications surrounding pneumonia in the Pruitt Nursing Home Sea Level, Beaufort County, where he spent the last two months of his life. Born March 28, 1933, in Roxboro, Person County, he was predeceased by his wife, Corinne, on Sept. 30, 2015.
He is survived by his two adult children: Guy and Cee Newell; Guy’s children Brian and Reid Newell, and Cee’s children, Mary-Chandler Storrs, Russell Touhey and Robert Touhey.
Also surviving are Mary-Chandler’s children (with Thomas Bird Storrs) Trueheart, Rosemarie and Josephine Storrs; also his sisters Zalene Newell Burnette and Janet Newell Satterfield, both of Roxboro.
For much of his life, Newell earned his living as a real estate developer and for many years was the owner of the Island Inn on Lighthouse Road.
He also was a talented poet, song writer and loved to play the trombone. With minimal urging, for years he would read one of his poems he just happen to have in his back pocket in the early mornings on the porch of the Ocracoke Coffee Company on Back Road. He also contributed humorous yarns to the Ocracoke Observer in the paper’s early years.
His song “Clam Rake” was known to many islanders and visitors and has been frequently performed by recording artist Katy Mitchell over the years at the summer Ocrafolk Opry at the Deepwater Theater. You can hear the song below.
Mary-Chandler Storrs offers her reminisces on her grandfather:
My grandfather could put anyone in his/her place.
(Allow me to go ahead and warn you, as my grandfather was as unconventional a person as has ever lived, this will be anything but a conventional obituary…consider yourself warned).
Where was I, then?
My grandfather could put anyone in his/her place. And I’ll say this for him, you could not be objective about him. Much like the Carolina/Duke basketball rivalry that he enjoyed so much, you can’t pull for both teams. And, if you watch the game, you can’t not care who wins.
People either loved or hated my grandfather; he was a person of extremes. Most people, in my experience, fell in the first category, however. That’s where I belong, in spite of myself. And that is where the miracle of my grandfather’s life occurred–that first category. The one that includes the list of people who loved him because, that list also included my grandmother.
My grandfather was not one for pomp and circumstance. He was not one for pretense. He always loved and stood for that which was authentic. That which was real. That which would cause you to laugh until you were doubled over with glee of the thing, and your stomach hurt the next day from the effort of it.
My grandfather asked a Yale professor visiting the Island Inn, “Yale…I think I’ve heard of it. Is that a two-year school?” He told a man on the Cape Hatteras/Ocracoke ferry with a deep-sea fish-hook jammed through his hand that Ocracoke and Outer Banks natives didn’t have “traditional medicine” or “real doctors,” that we all just “doctor on ourselves,” etc. …until the man pulled his wounded, bloodied hand from his pocket and asked Russell to remove the hook. He then, squeamish from the sight of blood, demanded that the man “put that away, you need to see a doctor!”
My grandfather said that every night on Ocracoke Island was Saturday night, and every morning on Ocracoke Island was Monday morning.
Russell, on Ocracoke: “You party, then you roll up your sleeves and go to work…and you make time for church on Sunday, too.”
My grandfather loved God and the word of God.
He loved to find humor in his own hardships, which over the course of his incredibly blessed and joyful life were both large and small, as seems to be the nature of life for anyone.
My grandfather was a self-proclaimed “world class biscuit builder,” who prayed over every batch so that it would “rise correctly.” His biscuits were so delicious that when he brought you one in the Island Inn dining room in his hand, even a germaphobe would thank him.
He was a poet. A self-taught trombone player…to the chagrin of my grandmother and many other victims, including (but not limited to): his eye doctor, the Ocracoke Coffee Company customers and employees, his mother and sisters, grandchildren and all in attendance of the 1990’s Ocracoke Island Fourth of July festivities.
My grandfather was a short-story writer and storyteller, and his distinct bellowing voice and southern drawl were part of the show as were his unique sense of humor and master in timing and delivery.
My grandfather asked for finger bowls at tiny, Eastern North Carolina BBQ greasy spoons, and then wore a rope as a belt when he could not find his.
His good looks stopped people in their tracks his entire life, and he knew it.
He sat in a tree to stop development of his own land on Ocracoke Island (he didn’t realize that particular tree also had to be cut down in order for the property to be developed).
Over the decades he owned and a great deal of property on Ocracoke, and was instrumental in many of the developments on the island. In Roxboro, he put salt blocks out for deer and catfish in a bath tub.
When I would visit my grandparents in Roxboro while attending UNC-Chapel Hill, he would brag that I could speak Italian to the clerk at Bojangles (who just wanted to hand me a piece of fried chicken and be done with the whole transaction).
He he would ask me to “prove it to her. She doesn’t believe me.”
My grandfather loved people. All sorts of people from any background or social status.
My grandfather loved Roxboro and my grandfather loved Ocracoke Island. In his later years, he wanted his poetry to be called: “Poems by Russ Newell–Blue Salt and Red Clay.” To him, in his old age, those two places in North Carolina–the salt and the clay, the backdrops to his life–defined him.
My grandfather loved classical music and musicals.
When I was 10 years old, we performed “Wouldn’t It be Loverly” from My Fair Lady in the Ocracoke Island talent show, and I was horrified with him because he never could get the lyrics down perfectly. Of course, he could, but he ruffled my feathers on purpose. That was just his way. He told the story of that talent show and his grand-daughter, the uptight, perfectionist 10-year-old with an affinity for lyrics right up until his death.
My grandfather had a lovely voice. Both spoken and sung.
My grandfather was a songwriter. He wrote many songs and poems about Ocracoke Island his most cherished muses including the world famous “Clam Rake.” Katy Mitchell included that song on her CD, and sings it better than any other.
My grandfather loved his children, and his grandchildren. He seemed to understand all of us uniquely, in the same way that he just understood life and the way the world works, fits together and functions.
My grandfather was a dreamer.
He taught me to dream.
If not for him, my family would never have spent any time on Ocracoke Island which was to become a home to all of us over the decades.
If not for him, I may actually exist in a mindset wrought with boundaries. With “you cannot-s” and “you should-not’s.”
I don’t exist there, however. I exist in a mindset of “you can-s,” “you should-s,” and “anything is possible-s” because I was taught to dream. And I was taught to have faith in God.
I was also taught that there was nothing to fear in death. Therefore, with God on your side, there was really nothing to fear in life.
Russell Newell taught me, his family, and any who was willing to listen and could take him with a grain of salt and the sense of humor approach that he commanded, that even your most devastating loss was just the starting point for your next victory.
I’m realizing now, as an adult, and feeling his absence sharply that actually my grandfather was a genius. He taught by example and practiced the ever-important lesson that you have to laugh in life. Otherwise, you won’t survive it. Otherwise why are we here at all?
On June 5, 2017, God called my grandfather home. Talking in his sleep the day before he died, he called out to his cousin he was sorry “he lost the mule;” dreaming about his childhood, told Corinne to “bring him a glass of water;” dreaming about my grandmother, and over and over again telling my Mom “Cee” and her brother “Guy” to do this thing or another.
As death approached him he was dreaming about that which he cherished most in life: people.
Russell Newell’s song “Clam Rake” performed by Katy Mitchell