By Douglas Buell
ARLINGTON – An Arlington businessman on Wednesday set off on his restored 1956 John Deere tractor to raise money to find a cure for the diabetes that has shadowed him since childhood.
For Jeff Newell, 56, president of the Newell Corp. in Arlington, who has lived with and been treated for juvenile onset diabetes since he was 11, the biggest needle on his mind will be the compass needle pointing him north to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, the halfway mark in a 6,000-mile round-trip journey.
Newell said the time is now. He isn’t getting any younger. “I’ve done a lot of different things in life,” said the travel-savvy and adventurous Newell. “This ride is has been in my mind for 35 years, but I just never took the time. It’s a good time to do it.
“Diabetes doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy life.” He plans to raise $500,000 for the American Diabetes Association to support diabetes research. “I’d like to raise a million, but we’ll see how it goes,” Newell said.
Prudhoe Bay has been the starting or ending point for a several adventures by car, bicycle, on foot and other modes of transportation. Newell himself has made the journey by motorcyle to Alaska, as well as Maine and other distant destinations.
But a tractor? Why?
“Most of us live our lives pretty fast,” Newell said. “You see things differently from the seat in a tractor. You’re maybe going ten to fifteen miles per hour, and you’re ten feet in the air. You have time to really take your time, see things and meet interesting characters as you go along.”
Plus, he loves tractors.
Over the past eight months of late nights spent in the shop, Newell painstakingly stripped down his green and yellow John Deere 820 tractor – every bearing and every seal – then reassembled it piece by piece to get it ready for the trip.
Friends Tom Newcomb and Joe Daves were indispensible in restoring the tractor.
“We had parts strewn all over the shop, and at one point I said we’re in over our head,” Newcomb said.
The driver’s seat is simple in appearance but thick and plush where it will count.
Newell added, the tractor “is a complicated old beast.” Getting the old engine started is a task, harkening back to the days before electrical starters. Newell won’t have to worry about wild animals on the trip either – any bear or moose in their right mind would high tail away from the mechanical beast with it’s low, reverberating hum and deep throaty knocking sound.
The journey is unsupported, other than his travel partner, Ron Wachholtz, who will be making the trip atop his own Ford tractor. Newell said with two tractors making the trip, it could be helpful in terms of parts and repairs, along with moral support.
When he told his wife of 25 years, Anita, of his plans, “She looked at me sideways,” Newell said. “That’s the way most people look at you, but she’s good with it now.”
“I understand his need for adventure,” Anita said. “In his personal life and business ventures, he’s always been driven that way.”
It’s the same drive and ambition that led Newell to establish Newell Corp. in 1982. The machining and fabricating company in the metal industry makes precision parts and products for customers, including The Boeing Co., the Navy and the aggregate industry. Newell figures it will take 3-4 weeks to get to Prudhoe Bay averaging 200 miles per day, barring any hold ups.
The duo will pass – slowly – through many cities and towns. It isn’t lost on them that there won’t be a single stop that doesn’t have residents living with diabetes.
About 1.25 million children and adults in the U.S. have Type 1 diabetes, representing about 5 percent of the population, according to the American Diabetes Association. Among people with Type 2 diabetes, 85 percent are overweight or obese.
Diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2015, with 79,535 people stricken, statistics show.
Newell said for the most part, he has lived a healthy life despite his condition.
“I’ve been on the needle forever,” said Newell, who grew up needing daily shots of insulin. When I was a kid, I didn’t think much about diabetes, but you get the complications,” Newell said. “You can do everything right, follow all the doctor’s orders, and it can still be a bear. I never let it slow me down.”
Newell’s odyssey will start in Arlington over the North Cascades Highway to Oroville in Eastern Washington, then follow a path across the Canadian border through Penticton, Kelowna, Vernon along Trans-Canada Highway 1. In Dawson Creek, the route will pick up again on Highway 2 through the Yukon before arriving in Fairbanks. From there, the tractors will join the Dalton Highway for a final leg across the tundra north to Prudhoe Bay.