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May 18, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Merrill Newman:They also serve ... Merrill Newman:They also serve ... (May 18, 2005)

by Alexandria Rocha

Although he spent nearly 60 years volunteering for the American Red Cross, Merrill Newman never found himself at the scene of a fire. He never helped in a blood bank; never collected clothes for victims of a tragedy.

When people talk about American Red Cross volunteers, oftentimes it's the disaster teams who steal the spotlight. Everyone wants to hear harrowing tales of leaving on a dime and racing across the states or seas to lend a hand on the frontlines.

Of course, those volunteers are invaluable. There are, however, thousands of others working long hours behind the scenes, keeping the philanthropic machine fueled. They constantly evaluate the organization's services, making sure it's as efficient as possible. They manage the assets, deal with bad fund-raising years, hire the executive directors.

Newman, 76, was part of that quiet force. He served on the Palo Alto Area Chapter's board of the American Red Cross for almost three decades. He also taught CPR and first aid throughout the years and still does.

"It's a relatively small chapter, but it's been significant," he said. "There are always people on the national Red Cross board from Palo Alto. There's a lot of interesting people in the whole scene."

Recently relaxing in his Martin Avenue home, where he has lived with his wife Lee for 36 years, Newman reminisced about his life's experiences, which have moved him from Colusa to Berkeley to Stanford to Korea, as well as Costa Rica and Ecuador.

Although his career and traveling success has led Newman and Lee to own their Martin Avenue home -- which sits in a quiet, shady, close-to-ideal Palo Alto neighborhood -- a second home in Santa Cruz and to luxuriate in recent sailing trips from Panama to Ecuador, summers in the Galapagos and Christmases in Costa Rica., he is modest and talks of his experiences as if they happened to someone else.

Perhaps it's because Newman officially retired in 1984 from working decades as a finance executive for various Bay Area technology companies. For the past 20 years, he and Lee have immersed themselves in the comforts of retirement -- Lee was a nursery school teacher -- and have focused on spending time traveling and visiting their 45-year-old son Jeff and twin grandsons, 10, who live in Pasadena.

Like a true Palo Altan, however, hard work is still in Newman's blood. Since retiring, he has consulted for a couple of different firms. It's safe to say, Lee, hard work, Palo Alto and the American Red Cross have been constants in Newman's life.

Although his most recent years volunteering for the Red Cross were spent pouring over paperwork and evaluating policies, Newman's service to the organization started when he was a 17-year-old swimmer teaching CPR and First Aide.

As a young boy growing up in Colusa, Calif., there wasn't much more to do in town than head to the public pool. The scorching heat that came along with living in the Sacramento Valley likely attributed to the pool's popularity. Newman said Colusa's swimming pool was the first built in California after World War II. It became the social outlet.

"They opened it free of charge to people because a nickel was too much and the kids were drowning in the river," he said.

One day in 1945, a few volunteers from the local chapter of the American Red Cross showed up at the pool inquiring among the youth if they had any interest in becoming swim instructors.

Just like that, Newman was headed to a National Aquatics School in Clear Lake, Calif., on the dollar of the American Red Cross. Newman said swim schools like those, which were part of a national movement to teach people how to swim, are a dying breed.

"The boys camped out in the gym like it was the barracks," he said. "The girls must have stayed somewhere else, but I don't know where."

Newman went on to attend various National Aquatics Schools, including some out of state such as Idaho.

After graduating high school, Newman spent one year at Yuba College before heading to the University of California, Berkeley where he earned a degree in zoology in 1950. Newman spent the next three years in the Korean War, in which he was an infantry officer.

When he returned to the United States, Newman came to the Bay Area. He taught math, science and was a swim coach for Berkeley and Livermore high schools in the mid-'50s, while he simultaneously earned a masters degree in education at Stanford University, which is where he met Lee.

The couple took root in Palo Alto and have been here ever since. Newman started working at various technology companies, many as the chief financial officer. He also continued to teach night classes at a few colleges during his years of work.

Along the way, he became involved with the Palo Alto Area Chapter of the American Red Cross. He spent most of his years with the organization as a lifesaving and water instructor, but also taught CPR and first aid for about 15 years. During the '70s and '80s, Newman started his service as a board member, which he enjoyed just as much.

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