Mr. Newton: Mentor, teacher, friend

It is starting to become something of a habit, running into Mark Newton in the concert line for a decidedly not-manly, adult-contemporary, easy-listening act somewhere in the downtown Denver area.

Twice in two years I’ve renewed acquaintances with my high school journalism teacher and freshman basketball coach under the exact same circumstances — he and his wife, and me and mine, waiting to go see a soft rock act. (Don’t judge.)

The most recent go-round was in front of the Paramount Theatre a couple weeks back, where the English crooner David Gray was playing that night. (Come on now, I said don’t judge.)

As we turned the corner off of 16th street mall and headed to the Paramount’s main entrance, there he was — Mark Newton, the smart, sassy, and unforgettably wise teacher who, with probably only the exception of my dad, taught me more stuff about more stuff than any guy in the formative years of my life.

“Wow, again?” I greeted, recalling the same-same encounter we had had just the year before at a concert hall up the way. “Why am I not surprised you’re a David Gray fan,” I poked, implicitly questioning his manhood just before he could question mine.

“Damn right,” Newt shot back, unapologetically.

Newton always had a sharp wit, one reason he was so beloved by the kids he taught and coached. But on-demand sarcasm was only part of Mr. Newton’s appeal. He was one of those teachers who just related and, more, persuaded his students to focus and push and grow. Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society sort of comes to mind. Newton was that teacher.

During his long run as a journalism teacher at GJHS, Newton was best known for running the Orange and Black newspaper, which achieved national acclaim year after year for what must have been 10 or 15 years. In 2010, the O&B was the first newspaper in Colorado history to be inducted into the National Scholastic Press Association’s Hall of Fame. During Newton’s tenure as its adviser, the O&B was named one of the top student newspapers in the country almost every year.

Newton and the O&B had a winning formula. Newton recruited, trained and pushed a team of students to be real journalists — to cover the news in a way that was relevant and meaningful, presented in a way that was provocative and — apropos to the paper’s teenaged readership — fun. An old jock, Newton managed to bring to his journalism program what all great coaches instill in theirs — an esprit de corps that made kids believe that they were part of something bigger than their contribution to it.

In the classroom, Newton was as much coach as he was teacher. Every week when I write this column, I still remember the techniques he drilled in the art of writing a lead paragraph — be brief (40 words or less), capture the essence, and pack some punch.

As coach, Newton’s approach was even more direct. He was your friend, except when he wasn’t. I will never forget a game my freshman season where we laid an absolute egg against a much weaker opponent. The next day as we sauntered onto the court for practice, Newton, the freshman head coach at the time, told us to leave the basketballs in the cage. He proceeded to run our mangy butts into the ground that entire practice.

That same year against Fruita Monument, I missed a 10-foot shot at the buzzer that would have won the game against our crosstown rival. After the game, I was devastated. I hate losing. I really hated losing to Fruita.

I’ll never forget what he told me as we walked off the floor that night: “You keep taking that shot.”

He must have repeated that charge to me 1,000 times in the three years after. It was the inscription in the graduation card he gave me. Funny how some things you just don’t forget. That line from that coach, I never will.

Newton and his wife live in Denver now. He’s a long-haired liberal journalism teacher in the Mecca of conservative education, Douglas County public schools.

Before we took our seats at the concert, I gave him grief about that. He gave me grief about being bald. I gave him grief about all of his gray hair. He called me a politician, and he didn’t mean it as a compliment.

It really was good to see my friend Mark Newton again. The next time Michael Bolton or Elton John comes to Denver, I may buy tickets just to have an excuse to catch up with the guy who taught me so much about so much.

Josh Penry is a former minority leader in the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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