published Saturday, July 12th, 2014

Harrison man makes his mark giving away a million pencils

Bige Newman shows off part of the stockpile of pencils that he keeps stored in his basement. Newman has spent decades making and selling wooden items, but he also has been donating thousands of pencils to schools in the region for the last 10 years.
Bige Newman shows off part of the stockpile of pencils that he keeps stored in his basement. Newman has spent decades making and selling wooden items, but he also has been donating thousands of pencils to schools in the region for the last 10 years.
Photo by John Rawlston.

PENCIL MATH

• A standard No. 2 pencil is 7.5 inches long.

• A million pencils would equal 7.5 million inches.

• That converts to 625,000 feet.

• Divide by 5,280, the number of feet in a mile.

• Total equals 118.37 miles.

Bige (BYj) Newman grew up in rural, 1940s-era Meigs County, the middle child of his parents' 11 children.

Pencils were hard to come by for a farming family with so many kids.

"We watched a pencil then," he said. "You took care of it."

Now he hands them out by the fistful.

For about a decade, Newman, a 73-year-old retiree in Harrison, has been buying or bartering for pencils that he has given to public schools, churches, businesses and people in the region.

By his count he has given out more than a million pencils.

Laid end to end, that's enough pencils to stretch more than 118 miles, or the distance between Chattanooga and Atlanta.

Virtually every school in Hamilton and Meigs counties has had a visit from Newman, usually toting pencils by the thousand, and maybe a walking stick or two, an exotic wooden goblet, pen, candlestick, cup, bowl or one of the other myriad creations the woodworker makes at his home.

Yet he has never made a pencil.

Newman has been giving stuff away for years. He and his wife worked together on wooden crafts they would sell at festivals and fairs all over the region while he was still working at Farmers Chemical Co. After he retired, they kept at it, and along the way he started doling out pencils.

"I forgot how I got into giving away those pencils. I give out pencils everywhere," said Newman, sitting in his easy chair surrounded by hand-turned wooden pieces. "Last year, I gave out 100,000 pencils."

Pencils stand ready in many of his wooden cups and goblets. His basement is filled with boxes that hold 2,500 pencils each. There are shelves with cubbyholes stacked with pencils in a hundred different colors. Some are even painted with a heat-sensitive material that changes colors when rubbed.

One of Newman's most recent large gifts of pencils went to schools in Van Buren County, about 40 miles north of Chattanooga.

"I can never show enough gratitude for the tens of thousands of pencils you have donated to the schoolchildren of Van Buren County over the years," the county's director of schools, Michael Martin, wrote in a letter of appreciation. "You are a blessing to the children of our small county."

Martin said the donations "mean that our teachers can provide snacks for our students for a week instead of buying pencils."

"To know that a neighbor cares enough to help my children is amazing," Martin said. "I will never be able to repay your generosity."

Newman also gives pencils to church missionaries to take to children overseas, hands them out in his Sunday school class at Bayside Baptist Church, slips a few to the tellers at his bank and pushes them into kids' hands at the local fast-food eatery.

He can't remember when he started with the pencil gifts but he knows the first school to get them was Harrison Elementary, just down the street.

"I was just glad to help them out," he said. "It makes you feel good."

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@times freepress.com or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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