Hamilton County's 'Pencil Man' loses a trove of woodworked creations in house fire

Hamilton County's 'Pencil Man' loses a trove of woodworked creations in house fire

June 15th, 2015 by Will Healey in Local Regional News

Staff Photo by Angela Lewis Foster/ The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 6/09/15 Bige Newman talks about the items that he makes from wood, many of which were destroyed when his home burned in May.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Gallery: "Pencil Man" of Hamilton County loses a trove of woodworked creations in house fire

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Bige Newman, the Harrison man known for giving away more than 3 million pencils to teachers and students in counties all over the area in the last decade, lost his home of 45 years in a Memorial Day fire.

"You accumulate a lot of stuff in 45 years," Newman said. "The house was full of all kinds of wood stuff."

"Wood stuff" is a modest assessment.

Newman, nearly 74, is a woodworker, crafting cups, goblets, jars, walking sticks, chests and tables in his spare time. He uses all kinds of woods — oak, maple, purpleheart from Africa, color-ply wood from Italy. After shaping the pieces with an awl, he cuts them apart and glues the shapes back together with the different types of wood.

Though Newman says he gives most of his creations away, he knows the dollar value of each piece, from $50 up to $3,000.

Newman guesses he lost more than 1,300 pieces in the fire, which apparently was started by a defective nightlight while he was out of the house. No one was injured, but the home's interior was destroyed. Newman said he's getting $400,000 from insurance — half for the house and half for the contents.

Walking through the house recently, Newman surveyed the ruins of his very own Library of Alexandria. All the hours. All the toil. All the memories.

In the dark, charred living room, the odor of smoke hung thick in the air. A large tube television lay melted down to a wavy flatscreen. Newman pointed a flashlight at the back wall, covered from floor to ceiling with built-in wood shelves that Newman and his brother built 30 years ago. Each ruined shelf is full, displaying no less than 15 wood cups, canisters and goblets — all blackened shells of their former selves.

"That's every kind of wood there is," Newman said. "It really got hot in this place."

Every room is like that, stocked with burned creations. The kitchen, with the Johnson Brothers wraparound oak cabinets; the den, its floor littered with charred wood chips and singed insulation; the spare room, with 40 or 50 of the handmade rabbit dolls he used to pick up for his wife, Roberta, at each craft fair he attended.

"Liberty Mutual said they'd never had a claim with that much stuff in a house," Newman said.

That's because crafting is what Newman and his wife did at night: him shaping, cutting and gluing the pieces, and Roberta painting floral patterns or ducks on them.

"It was something they did together in the evenings," said Newman's daughter, Teresa.

At least until about 16 months ago, when Roberta had a heart attack. She had two stents put in, but the wound on her sternum wouldn't heal, requiring 60 visits to a hyperbaric oxygen chamber.

Teresa moved her mother into her house and is a full-time caregiver. Newman still can't talk about Roberta getting sick without breaking down.

"Twice they had to cut her open," he said.

Since the fire, Newman has moved in with Teresa and Roberta, and he hasn't created much since then.

"Haven't felt like it," he said.

Teresa said her mother's illness and the fire have really got her father down.

The good news, though, is that Roberta is recovering and the fire didn't touch the two barns behind the house, where her dad kept most of his raw woodworking materials as well as almost as many pieces as he lost in the house.

Teresa hopes that once the house is torn down and re-built, and her mother recovers, he can get back to his hobby.

"He'll never let that go," she said. "He'll always do that in some capacity."

Something else survived the fire. Boxes of pencils — 250 boxes, 625,000 pencils — were found safe in Newman's basement. Newman swaps his pieces for pencils from a local pencil maker who wished to remain anonymous, and gives them to the schools for the kids who can't afford school supplies.

"Kids don't have pencils," he said. "I want to give them to kids who haven't got anything."

Employees of Hamilton County Schools picked up the 250 boxes last week and plan to give them out to teachers before the school year.

Despite all that he has on his plate right now, Newman said he'll keep on collecting pencils to be ready for the region's students when school starts back up in the fall.

Contact Will Healey at whealey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.