Memorial: Philanthropist died Aug. 30 at age 83.
By Barry Scanlon, Correspondent for the Lowell Sun
Lowell » He wasn’t a screamer. Didn’t rant or rave. Didn’t speak the most.
But during a meeting, when he voiced his opinion, all eyes around the table gravitated toward Newell Flather.
“You’d be in a meeting and he would quietly ask questions,” said Joe Hungler, the executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Lowell. “ You always knew he was there. He had an understated presence. He didn’t talk the most or speak the loudest, but his voice carried.”
Flather, a Lowell native and renowned philanthropist, died Aug. 30, at the age of 83, after a series of chronic health issues. He is survived by his wife of 54 years, Kate Cameron Flather.
His was a life filled with international travel, a love of sweets, opera music and museums, booming laughter, a determined advocacy for race and gender equality and, above all, a drive to help others less fortunate.
“Philanthropy has its roots in Greek — love of mankind — and Newell’s life work exemplified the highest and best practices in philanthropy,” said Karen Carpenter, the president of the Theodore Edson Parker Foundation.
Flather was the chair of the foundation for 40 years and a past president. The Theodore Edson Parker Foundation, which paid nearly $ 1.3 million in grants in 2020 to nonprofit organizations working in Lowell, was founded in Lowell in 1944.
A memorial will be held when COVID permits. He is also survived by a son, Newell Flather, of Newton, and a daughter, Alice Rogers Flather, of Los Angeles.
Born on Feb. 28, 1938, Flather grew up in Lowell and attended public school in the city. Even when he rose to great heights, when he couldn’t walk 20 feet in Boston without bumping into someone he knew, he never forgot his hometown.
He is credited with coining the phrase, “There’s a lot to like about Lowell.”
Though he was a longtime resident of Newton, Flather visited Lowell often and whenever he did, his first stop was to the Do- nut Shack on Westford Street.
“There really was no one like him. It was quite a life. He was a great Lowellian,” said Phil Hall, the director of grantmaking for GMA Foundations. “ He was an amazing person. He had a real love for the city.”
In 1961, Flather was a member of the first group of Peace Corps volunteers. His experience in Ghana, where he served as a teacher, was a profound one, fueling his commitment to race and gender equality.
“His Peace Corps work underscored his deeply held values. Newell never forgot his roots, and used his broad experience garnered later in banking to help others through philanthropy,” Carpenter said.
Returning to the U. S., he was introduced to the charitable foundation field when he worked at The African-American Institute.
He earned his MBA at Harvard Business School and spent 10 years in Boston banking. He then founded GMA Foundations in 1982 with two women, Mary Phillips and Ala Reid, to help private foundations increase their efficiency and impact. He served as GMA’s president until his retirement in 2007.
Upon his death, GMA posted a message on its website: “Newell was gregarious, imaginative, optimistic, and a consummate connector. All of us at GMA will miss his larger than life presence, his bow ties, his stories of international travel, his ideas of meetings we should have with people we should meet, the donuts left over every year from Halloween, and his powerful holiday eggnog.”
Flather was also a founding trustee of Oxfam America and served on the board for nine years, three as president.
Flather was blessed with the “gift” of being able to make people feel comfortable, Hall said.
“He just knew a lot of people,” Hall said. “He really cared about people. He was a very warm person. He had a great sense of humor. He was not quiet. He was one of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet.”
He had friends in high places, like Lowell native Paul Tsongas, who ran for president in 1992. Flather admired the ability of his friend to get large projects accomplished while not forgetting smaller ones.
But he was also comfortable around those less powerful.
His aunt, Edith Nourse Rogers, was Massachusetts’ first congresswoman, serving 35 years. His father, John Rogers Flather, ran the Boott Mill. Newell’s father was a friend of Theodore Edson Parker, who had inherited a large sum of money from his uncle. John Rogers Flather served as a trustee when the foundation was established.
Carpenter became Parker’s first female board member in 1982 after an invite from Flather.
“Newell understood the importance of patience with newly forming entities, like CMAA and CBA, and we were proud of the spectacular successes like the Lowell Community Health Center and UTEC, which took our early funding to new heights,” Carpenter said. “ Newell Flather was a truly memorable man; we grieve his passing and are grateful for his presence that benefited many in Lowell and beyond. Newell loved meeting new people, attending weddings, parties, celebrations, and was always touting the wonderful restaurants in Lowell. He embraced people of all ages, races, colors, genders.”
Last year, the New England Fund for the Arts established the Newell Flather Award for leadership in the arts.
“ What I really respected about him was his commitment to the community,” Hungler said. “ It wasn’t about Newell or the Parker Foundation, it was about how do we make a difference? Lowell was a special place for him.”
Flather insisted on making local boards diverse.
A Khmer American, Sophy Theam, joined the Parker Foundation’s Board of Trustees in 2010. A chance meeting in the lobby of the Lowell Memorial Auditorium changed her life 21 years ago.
Theam was serving as tour manager for a nationwide Cambodia dance tour when she met the gregarious Flather. They struck up a friendship.
She became a fellow at the Parker Foundation before moving to Florida. Returning to Lowell, she wasn’t sure of her career path. Flather placed a call on her behalf to Enterprise Bank. Theam has worked at the Lowell-based bank for nearly 16 years.
In 2014, Theam invited Newell and Kate Flather to her Lowell home for her daughter’s third birthday party. She asked guests to dress as a superhero. Kate Flather wore a Wonder Woman shirt and headband.
“But Newell, well, he didn’t like to dress up, and he came as himself,” Theam said. “He probably didn’t know or think about himself as one, but he didn’t have to dress up to be a superhero. He was a superhero to many of us already. To me and my family, he was and will always be a superhero.”
© 2021 Lowell Sun | Photos Courtesy Theodore Edson Parker Foundation