It was the spring of 1983, and John Newbury was finishing up his third enjoyable year of teaching the sixth grade at Hofstetter School in Colville since graduating from Whitworth College in Spokane.
Suddenly, without warning, John’s words became slurred and garbled, and his head began bouncing from side to side until it finally anchored itself to his left shoulder. His left arm lifelessly hung at his side.
After months of doctors, hospitals, tests, and over a year in bed, Newbury was finally diagnosed as having a rare form of rapid onset dystonia Parkinson’s disease, a neurological condition, often painful, characterized by the jerking and twitching of involuntary muscle contractions. Muscle spasms were so severe that he later had to have neck surgery to repair the damage caused by the spasms..
“I lost my job, my house, and basically I lost everything.” Newbury lamented. “I tried to return to my classroom the following fall, but the kids couldn’t understand anything I said.”
After two weeks of school, Newbury came to the realization that his beloved teaching career had come to an abrupt end, and he reluctantly retired.
“John was my sixth grade reading teacher,” said former student and current friend Bill Roy. “He was a very popular teacher at Hofstetter. Now, I help him out whenever I can, and I act as his interpreter for those who can’t understand some of the things he says.” (It was interesting that Bill instinctively knew every time I did not understand what John was saying and immediately repeated his words.)
Looking back, Newbury now believes his Parkinson’s disease is a result of stress.
“I was a big, strong man,” John said, “but all the stress in my life at that time made me sick, because I didn’t handle it very well.”
After diagnosing his condition, doctors were able to prescribe medication to help control Newbury’s muscle spasms. However, even before his condition was stabilized, Newbury had gone back to a hobby he had enjoyed prior to becoming incapacitated. That was fly tying.
“I have always been a fisherman,” said John. “I skipped my college graduation to go fishing with friends up at Chopaka Lake near Oroville. It was on the same day that Mt. St. Helens blew its top.
“I started tying flies in 1978. We had a Hobby Day toward the end of school, and I taught the kids how to tie flies.”
Newbury fought his way through muscle tremors to resurrect the small motor skills needed to tie flies. At the same time, he was also overcoming the awkwardness of his slurred speech. By 1986, those skills and techniques had been honed to the point that he was asked to demonstrate his expertise at local sportsman’s shows. He became an instant hit there, just as he had been in his classroom.
“I went from humiliation to being extremely humble,” said John. “God humbled me.”
Three years later, in 1989, Newbury was demonstrating his unique style of fly tying at the annual conclave of the Federation of Fly Fishers.
“He was seated between Lee Wulff and Gary Borger,” wrote Spokesman-Review outdoor writer Rich Landers. “To the uninitiated, that’s pretty much like being in the dugout between Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.”
Newbury’s notoriety continued to grow as he was invited to demonstrate his fly tying skills at a growing number of national sportsman’s events.
During this same time period, John had built his own aviary and filled it with the birds he needed to produce the exotic feathers required for the flies he tied. Fly tiers from all over the world contacted him to get the feathers they needed for their flies.
“At one time, I had over 3000 birds in my aviary,” John said. “Students from the schools would come out here on field trips to see all of them. I put their eggs in incubators to hatch. Can you imagine 700 baby birds all hatching in one night?
“Do you see this feather?” he asked, holding up a tan feather with a pattern of black circles. “This one feather cost me $75. Once, I sold just four feathers for $2400.
“I had to give up my aviary because of the rising cost to feed the birds. I just couldn’t afford to feed them anymore. A $1200 feed bill per month gets old quickly.”
Behind his fly tying desk, John has dresser drawers full of the exotic feathers he uses in his creations.
Now, Newbury is an internationally-known and recognized master fly tier, and he has the awards to prove it.
In 2007, John became the first person inducted into the Washington State Fly Tying Hall of Fame. In 2008, he was presented the Lew Jewett Memorial Life Award by the Federation of Fly Fishers. He was then selected as the recipient of the FFF’s Buz Buszek Memorial Fly Tying Award in 2009 for his unique and significant contributions to the art of fly tying.
“The Buszek Award in given to only one person per year in North America,” explained Newbury. “The state nominated me for the award.”
Over the years, John has created many original fly designs. Others are improvements he has made on other tier’s creations. He has 24 flies pictured in the Fly Pattern Encyclopedia.
“There are six flies pictured on the front cover of the book,” he pointed out, “and two of them are mine.”
Often, Newbury gets ideas for new flies while fishing or while on his way home from the lake. Those ideas may keep him at his fly tying vice until the wee hours of the morning.
Naming each and every new fly has also become a problem. Some are named after fishing buddies, like the Erv Emerger, a unique hinged fly. Others have names like the Big Ant and the Pink Dink Leech. But, sometimes, a fly has not been given a name.
“Fishermen will ask me, ‘What is the name of that fly you’re using?'” John related. “I tell them that it doesn’t have a name, but that I have been using it for 15 to 20 years. They then say, ‘You gotta name it.’ So, now, I just started naming them UB-1, UB-2, and so on…”
Newbury remained undiscovered here in Chewelah as a nationally awarded fly tier until recent years. He was known locally as the Bird Man, because of his well-stocked aviary of exotic birds. However, few people knew that hiding in the corner of his living room was the work bench where John had created the fishing flies that, in turn, had earned him the most coveted award in fly tying. Somehow, he was able to stay under the Chewelah radar.
“I was introduced to John by Dave Stroyan in 1991,” said Kevin Kernan. “Since that time, I have gone hunting and fishing with him several times.
“Two years ago, John and I put together a fly tying class that met once a week in my classroom at the high school. The class started in October and finished in April, and there were probably 15 students who attended regularly.
“John taught us how to tie all kinds of flies, from the most simple to the most challenging. He gave us a lot of homework every week, and the guys who did their homework got very good at fly tying.
“In fact, some of the guys who attended that class still get together to tie flies. It’s become somewhat of a social club for fishermen. We tie flies, talk about fishing, and critique each other’s work. And, we all still phone John or stop by his house to ask questions having to do with catching trout, steelhead, and salmon, or just to chat.”
Newbury also helped his students purchase the proper equipment for the best price.
“Maybe we need to put together another class for this fall,” said Kernan.
John still attends some of the outdoor sportsman shows, but he has cut back on his itinerary. He has returned to his career-choice roots. He has again become a teacher, not an instructor of sixth grade math and reading, but a teacher of fly tying and fly fishing.
But, more than that, John has become a living example of a person turning a tragedy into a triumph.
John will be demonstrating his world class talent in Spokane this weekend, July 13-14, at the 2012 International Fly Fishing Fair. He will be in the Convention Center on Friday from 1 to 5 p.m. and on Saturday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.
By Geno Ludwig
The Independent Staff
In This Photo: John Newbury at work at his fly-tying bench, which occupies a corner of the living room at his home in Chewelah. Photo courtesy of Anthony Roslund, Roslund Photography