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Donald J. Newbart; 90, social worker, fan of jazz, social justice and ‘the little guy’

Donald J. Newbart.

Donald J. Newbart.

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Updated: October 16, 2013 6:49AM

After his family lost its business, car and peace of mind during the Great Depression, Don Newbart was grateful for the government programs that gave them a lifeline.

He idolized President Franklin Roosevelt as a leader who kept people working and fed.

He chose to become a social worker so he could give back and help “the little guy.”

Mr. Newbart questioned authority and conventional wisdom, and loved Big Band music and good ethnic food. He could defuse an argument with a well-timed, (sometimes) cleaned-up expletive, like “Cow dung!”

He died Wednesday at age 90 of complications of pneumonia at Evanston Hospital.

Mr. Newbart was born in Cleveland to Hungarian Jewish immigrants, Alex and Malvine Newbart. They moved to Chicago and opened a cleaners at California and 22nd Street, and later, at 3319 W. Foster. Life was good. They were able to buy a Model T Ford.

But the Depression dealt them a body blow. The cleaners folded. The Model T that Alex Newbart was so proud of rusted in the yard — there was no money for gas or repairs.

To help make ends meet, the young Donald Newbart had jobs. To get ice for his family, he hiked for blocks in the hot sun. Sometimes his walks were marred by neighborhood toughs, who shouted at him, “Dirty Jew!”

Even keeping kosher was a challenge, in an era when people made do with unmarked cans of food from the government and food banks. His mother fretted over what might be inside, and whether it conformed to dietary laws.

He also helped by delivering clothes to customers, accompanied by his dog, Tippy. Its name was one of the early signs of a quirky, pun-loving sense of humor. When clients paid for their clothes, “He would say, ‘Here, Tippy,’ and it would prompt getting a tip,” said his son, Dan.

Mr. Newbart attended Hibbard Elementary School and Von Steuben High School. He was at a Chicago Bears game when word came of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. He enlisted, and served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. He also ran a PX in Alaska, where, he said, “you could never get warm.” His attic held a giant parka from those days.

After being discharged, he continued his studies at Roosevelt University. In his off time, he listened to Big Band music and went dancing. He was expert at the fox trot and jitterbug.

“He was a guy who questioned everything. He would say, ‘Prove it,’ or ‘How do you know?’ or ‘I never read that,’ ’’ said another son, Dave Newbart. “He had a real strong sense of social justice, and a real strong sense of helping others.”

He joined a number of liberal and leftist groups — the Workmen’s Circle, the Labor Zionists. During the Red Scare, the FBI wound up compiling a dossier on him, Dave Newbart said. Investigators questioned his friends and chided him for associating with the groups. And while he was a staunch believer in social justice, his son said, his memberships came about — in part — because the meetings were a great way to meet women.

He clicked right away when he met Betty Manning in the summer of ’58 at “The Point,” the park that juts out into Lake Michigan at 59th and Lake Shore Drive. “He was very attentive and very sweet,” she said. They married and throughout the years lived in Bellwood, Elk Grove Village, Oak Park and Skokie.

As a social worker, he assisted the young, the old, the mentally ill, the addicted. At a Cook County welfare agency, he helped new immigrants. When he worked for the Social Security Administration, he appeared on radio shows to give advice about benefits.

In 1966, Mr. Newbart received his master’s degree in social work from the University of Chicago, where he befriended another student, Swee Huang, who was from Malaysia.

“He was always very curious about people and cultures,” Huang said. They brought their families to Chinatown to dine at the old Hong Min restaurant. The Newbarts asked the Huangs to their Thanksgiving dinners, and the Huangs invited them to Malaysia to meet their extended family.

Mr. Newbart worked at Haymarket House, the Illinois State Psychiatric Institute, the Illinois Department of Mental Health and the Veterans Administration.

He had a health scare in 2002, when he lapsed into an extended but restless near-coma. His family played him the music of Ella Fitzgerald, the queen of jazz. It always seemed to settle him. “He could sing with her,” Huang said.

The Newbarts always attended Chicago’s Jazz Fest, even if it rained. He had radios in every room so he could listen to his music.

They loved to travel, often staying at Elder Hostels. They wintered in Green Valley, Ariz.

“He was very inquisitive and open-minded, and always looking to learn,” said a cousin, Cindy Zucker.

Until recently, he volunteered as a docent at the Field Museum, where he liked to regale visitors with stories about the man-eating Lions of Tsavo.

Even in his final days, he never lost his sense of humor. When his family took a break and prepared to exit his hospital room, he called out in mock outrage, “ ‘I’m dyin’ here, and you’re leavin’ ?”

In addition to his wife, Betty, and his sons, Dan and Dave, Mr. Newbart is survived by his daughter, Mara Kalish, and six grandchildren. His funeral service will be held at noon Sunday at Chicago Jewish Funerals, 8851 Skokie Blvd., Skokie.

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