Former Illawarra Steelers chairman, and former Illawarra Mercury editor and general manager, Peter Newell has died on Monday morning after a battle with cancer. Peter is survived by his wife Judy, children Karen, Steven, Robert and Kelly and their partners Leanne, Heather and Stephen, and 10 grandchildren. Here his friend, and former colleague, Nick Hartgerink, pays tribute to a man who made a great impact on those who knew him - and to this city.
Wollongong has lost one of its greatest adopted sons, with the passing of newspaperman and clubs industry leader Peter Newell OAM this week.
As a journalist, editor and general manager at the Illawarra Mercury from 1970 until 2000, Peter led many community campaigns, most notably the battle to greatly improve road safety on the notorious Mt Ousley Road, which had become a busy, single-lane death trap by the 1970s.
The raised central jersey barriers, escape beds for trucks, multiple lanes and speed limits that have made the road immeasurably safer can be traced back to the community campaign that Peter instigated after the tragic death of a mother and four children whose car was hit by a runaway truck on the road in 1979.
He also committed the paper to campaigning ferociously for an Illawarra team to be included in the Sydney rugby league competition (now the National Rugby League), working closely with Illawarra Rugby League Secretary Bob Millward until the Illawarra Steelers were admitted in 1982.
Peter later joined the Steelers board in 1989, and was chairman for 20 years from 1999 to 2019. He played a key role in the Steelers' decision to remain loyal to the Australian Rugby League during the breakaway Super League "war" of 1997, and (again working closely with Millward) helped negotiate Illawarra's merger with St George to form the St George-Illawarra Dragons in 1999.
While disappointed that the Steelers couldn't remain a stand-alone club after the ravages of Super League, Peter bowed to the inevitable and was determined that "world-class rugby league" would not be lost to the region.
He was awarded a medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in 2003 for his role in the merger, and for his service to the community.
That association with the Steelers, and his obvious leadership qualities and oratory skills, led to him being invited to take over as chairman of ClubsNSW board in 2004 - a position he was to hold for 15 years. He was also ClubsAustralia chairman from 2007 to 2018. In both positions he took a prominent public role defending registered clubs and their contribution to their communities against governments intent on increasing taxes on the industry and the anti-gambling lobby.
Early in his tenure as ClubsNSW Chairman, Peter led the clubs industry's response to the devastating tsunami that ravaged many parts of South-east Asia on Boxing Day, 2004. In less than three months, NSW clubs raised over $3 million, much of which was given to Father Chris Riley's Youth Off The Streets organisation which established an orphanage in the Indonesian province of Aceh for children who had lost their parents in the tsunami.
Peter travelled to Aceh and was profoundly moved by the plight of the survivors of the calamitous natural disaster.
Peter Newell arrived in Wollongong to join the Mercury in February 1970, aged 21, having started in journalism as a cadet at The Manning River Times. His editor at The Times, David Lonsdale, had moved to the Mercury and invited his protégé to join him. Peter thought he might stay in Wollongong for a year, then head off with a mate from Taree on a long-planned trip to London.
However, those plans for the traditional Australian "rite of passage" trip to live and work in England never happened. A soaring career and meeting the love of his life, Judy Lind, intervened. He also fell in love with Wollongong.
Peter enjoyed a meteoric rise at the Mercury. He was quickly appointed chief of staff, then deputy editor. In October 1978 Peter was appointed editor. He was just 29 years old.
"The Mercury had been established in 1855 with the ethos that it should always 'advance the causes of the district while neither courting the favour nor fearing the frowns of any party, faction or sect'. That was something I could relate to, and one I was determined to uphold," Peter told me recently.
He was also fond of describing the paper of his pre-internet era as being like a good set of lungs. "It drew breath in the morning, replenished its lifeblood over the next 19 hours, then exhaled with a breath felt from Engadine to Eden," he wrote in the Mercury's 140th anniversary edition in 1995.
As editor, Peter quickly established his reputation for taking bold decisions when a big story warranted it. And there were none bigger than the tragic death in May 1979 of Dorothy Moore and her four children - killed when a runaway truck slammed into their car on Mt Ousley Road as they were returning home to Sydney from a South Coast holiday. A few days earlier a young Thirroul man, Paul Jones, had been killed in a similar accident further north on the road at Cataract Creek.
"The situation was out of control," Peter remembered, as we talked over his career after his terminal cancer diagnosis. "Poorly maintained coal trucks bringing coal to Port Kembla from the Burragorang Valley had turned the road into a death trap, and no-one - least of all the police - were doing anything about it. There was even talk that some of the truck drivers were off-duty policemen."
With screaming banner headlines like OUSLEY SLAUGHTER and DEATH ROAD, Peter committed the Mercury to leading a campaign to have the road dramatically improved and properly policed. The success of that campaign was to be one of his proudest achievements as a journalist.
On July 24, 1979 the Appin coal mine had a deadly methane gas explosion that killed 14 miners. The tragedy happened at 11pm, just as the Mercury was being printed. No matter. Peter despatched his gun industrial reporter Paddy Ginnane and a photographer to the mine in the middle of the night, and the following morning fired up the press again to produce the Mercury's first ever mid-morning edition, with extensive coverage of the disaster.
The Mercury also launched a major appeal to raise funds for the families of the dead miners, one of many such appeals the paper ran in Peter's time (a tradition that has continued). He strongly believed that the paper had a responsibility to use its reach and influence to support good causes in the community, from helping build a new children's ward at Wollongong Hospital to sending critically ill children overseas for life-saving operations.
In the early 1980s the Illawarra was badly affected by a major downturn in the steel industry, which saw the region's major employer - BHP's Australian Iron and Steel (now BlueScope Steel) - shed many thousands of jobs from its Port Kembla Steelworks as it fought for its survival.
Peter took a proactive response, joining with Wollongong City Council representatives to travel to the UK, US and Japan to learn how former steel towns in those countries had managed their economic transition. Rather than lament the loss of the steel jobs as the Steelworks shed jobs to become a leaner, more efficient operation, Peter and the paper embraced the broadening of the regional economy away from a reliance on steel, including supporting the growing University of Wollongong's potential to spearhead the change.
He also embraced broadening the Mercury's horizons. Under Peter's editorship, the paper literally spread its wings - appointing its own staff to cover State Parliament and major events outside the region, from national disasters to major sport, rather than relying on wire service coverage.
He had first done that as deputy editor, sending a Mercury crew to cover the Granville rail disaster in January 1977. He had been thrilled with the quality of the stories produced by reporters Peter Cullen and Geoff Failes, and it was a lesson he subsequently put to great effect in later years.
He also employed the Mercury's first in-house cartoonist, Warren Brown (now at the Daily Telegraph), followed by the late, great Vince O'Farrell.
The Mercury's owners Fairfax appointed Peter as the Mercury's general manager in November, 1985. He was just 36 - young to be leading a company with several hundred employees - but his appointment was a measure of the trust head office had in him. He was to continue in the role for 15 years, and while he always greatly missed the highs (and lows) of daily journalism, he accepted the challenge of developing the Mercury as a business.
"I enjoyed being General Manager, but I certainly missed the newsroom. You can't easily get journalism out of your system, because a good story is always a good story," he said. "But I was very glad that I had been the editor, because it meant that I understood what the paper was doing editorially, so I didn't get any nasty surprises in the way that a manager who had previously been an accountant may have had."
Under Peter's astute leadership, the Mercury was a highly profitable operation, with strong circulation and advertising volumes in the pre-internet days. It was not unusual for the paper to sell 45,000-plus copies of its Saturday edition.
One of his first projects as general manager was to oversee the installation of a state-of-the art Goss Urbanite colour press in 1986, allowing the Mercury to become the first Australian newspaper to run daily colour pages.
A keen racing fan, Peter also instigated the expansion of the Mercury's daily formguide until it was arguably the best in the country. Demand for the newspaper, on the strength of its formguide, grew quickly. Throughout the 1990s the Mercury was sold at newsagents across Sydney and in any regional towns around NSW - to the consternation of rival newspaper publishers (and some within the Fairfax group, whose "territory" was encroached upon).
For many years Peter contributed a bright and breezy column to the Saturday Mercury called Punting Pete - full of racing yarns and anecdotes collected from his many "sources".
A day at the races was one of his favourite leisure pursuits, and he instigated the Mercury Classic for two-year-olds at Kembla Grange. He and Judy were trackside at Flemington to see the great Makybe Diva win her three consecutive Melbourne Cups in 2003-2004-2005, as well as watching other champions over the years, from Gunsynd to Black Caviar and Wynx.
In 1989 the Illawarra Steelers approached Peter to join its Board, and he willingly agreed, little knowing it would take his life on a very different path.
"He gave over 30 years of outstanding service to the Illawarra Steelers, where he served as chairman and was the recipient of life membership," his great friend and colleague Bob Millward said. "Peter steered the club through a very difficult period of the late 1990s - confronting the Super League and the ultimate merger with St George. He regularly defended the Steelers' original charter to bring, and retain, world-class rugby league in the lllawarra."
That association with the Steelers, which included 20 years as Chairman from 1999-2019, opened up a whole new world for Peter. It was a world which was to fulfill him after he retired from the Mercury in 2000 at the relatively young age of 50.
In 2004, ClubsNSW Chairman Pat Rogan visited Peter in Wollongong. "Pat told me he'd come down to ask me to do a little job for him," Peter remembered. "When I asked him what that might be, he said 'I want you to take over my job'. I was taken completely by surprise at first, but after I'd thought about it for a while I rang Pat back and told him I'd have a crack at it."
Have a crack, he certainly did. He spent 15 years as chairman, while concurrently chairing Clubs Australia for 11 years.
"For Peter to be appointed Chairman of ClubsNSW and ClubsAustralia was a great honour for our region and he remained in that role for a record term. That speaks volumes for his dedication and the support he received from his wife Judy and their family," Mr Millward said.
Wollongong businessman Graeme Gulloch, who replaced Peter as Steelers Chairman, said Peter "epitomised everything that we value at the Steelers - caring, committed to the community, treating everyone as equals, giving people a 'family' to belong to and advocating for Wollongong and the Illawarra".
"The Steelers' history has been challenging and through those trying times and throughout his illness Peter always found an opportunity to have a good laugh and to look for positives," Mr Gulloch said. "His pragmatism, devotion, wit and mischievous sense of humour will be deeply missed by all of us associated with the Steelers Club - members, friends, staff and Board. We recognise the enormous contribution he made to our club, the club sector and to the local community."
Peter had been bravely battling the blood cancers multiple myeloma and acute myeloid leukaemia for a number of years, with the help of his specialist (who became his great mate), haematologist Professor Peter Presgrave at Wollongong Hospital. Early this year his condition worsened.
Peter went home from hospital in February for palliative care, with weekly visits to Wollongong Hospital for an infusion of blood platelets. In typical fashion, Peter's great fighting spirit helped him defy the odds for much longer than he should have.
Sadly, his fight ended in the early hours of September 28.
Peter is survived by his wife Judy, children Karen, Steven, Robert and Kelly and their partners Leanne, Heather and Stephen, and 10 grandchildren.
He will be greatly missed by his family and all who were fortunate enough to work with him or call him a friend, and many others who have simply benefitted from his life of service.
Nick Hartgerink worked with Peter Newell at the Illawarra Mercury from 1977 until 2001. He was editor of the paper from 1995-2001.
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