Keith and Christopher Newcomer: Portraits of Love

Once, in the early years of building his business in Arcata, my brother Keith Newcomer told a reporter, “I’m an accumulator. Ever since I was a kid pulling a wagon I’ve had a whim to collect things.”

It seems that among “things” the founder of Arcata Exchange collected during his lifetime are friends. Make that scores of friends. Friends who now join Keith’s bereaved family in missing a man who is remembered as “one of the good guys,” “a generous soul,” “a great friend” and “a true Arcata spirit.”

Add to those descriptions “loving son,” “loyal brother,” “fun-loving brother-in-law,” “attentive uncle” and “devoted father.”

Yet these descriptions, heartfelt though they are, capture only an essence of the man who was Keith Lee Newcomer. Born in Amityville, Long Island, N.Y., on March 20, 1954, to Robert and Anne Newcomer, Keith was a curly-headed tot who was always on the move. He exhibited an independent spirit early on and didn’t take well to being bossed by his sister, Robin, four years older (though in later years, she would introduce him as “my older brother” and delighted in getting away with it). By the time brother Steven was born four years later, Keith was undisputedly a middle child.

A middle child—but Keith at a young age somehow devised a way to avoid getting lost in the older sister-younger brother sandwich. As a little boy, he distinguished himself as smart, creative and charming. Oh, and add to that, mischievous, says his mother, who found that raising Keith could make her alternately crazy mad and crazy in love all within the same 10 seconds.

“I remember the time we took the bus back to New York, and Keith started tossing pillows at Steven, and suddenly there were feathers flying all over the place and they had to stop the bus to clean it up,” she recalls.

Perhaps because he was a Pisces, or perhaps just because he grew up in Southern California within walking distance of Redondo and Torrance beaches, Keith found surfing a natural outlet for his seemingly endless store of energy. Beginning in his pre-teen years, he often slipped quietly from his bedroom in the hours of early light to join surfer friends catching a few waves before school.

By the time he graduated from West Torrance High School, Keith was an avid surfer, even making his own boards in his parents’ garage.

One year or so after high school, Keith bid the rush of Southern California good-bye and moved to Humboldt County. There he reveled in walking amongst lofty redwood trees, taking on bigger surf while avoiding sharks (“I don’t eat them, they don’t eat me,” he reassured his worried sister), and making friends with people he would know for the rest of his life.

Arcata attorney Mark Harris, who shared Keith’s love for surfing as well as for flying, is one of those friends. “Keith's true environment was always the ocean,” recalls Mark. “If he seemed down or distracted, all you had to do was throw him into the salt water and out would come this happy, peaceful man. He just seemed incapable of having a bad day in the water.”

Within a short time of arriving in Arcata,
Keith found his calling as a young entrepreneur after watching people barter for goods and services while visiting local fairs and markets in Southern Humboldt County, where he first lived. “The people got together to sell and trade their handmade goods and homemade food. It was a means of support for them. It was also a time to be social, to have fun,” Keith recalled years later to a newspaper reporter.

He opened the first Arcata Exchange with the slogan “Barter is Better” painted on the storefront window in December 1977 in the historic Pythian Castle on the corner of 11th and H streets. Keith wanted the store to be a place of “positive thinking and good vibes”—a place where people could come together to exchange ideas and conduct fair commerce. The store’s inventory was ever-changing with bits of this and that, mostly useful, with some things admittedly mostly not so (anybody need a single-slice toaster that browns only one side?).

“I love dealing with people and trading is a fair means of exchange,” Keith recalled years later. “In a trade, both parties walk away happy. When you are dealing with money, it’s more impersonal, less gratifying.”

Even while building his business, Keith always made time for surfing, with the jetty being a favorite spot. And he made sure surfboards and wetsuits were among items he carried in his store. “Keith was an integral part of Humboldt’s surf history,” remembers one local. “You either bought equipment from Keith or in Eureka, or you bought it out of the area.” That legacy is carried on in the current Arcata Exchange where Keith mounted a commemorative surfboard on the wall with the help of his nephew Robbie a few years ago.

By the early 80s, Keith moved the store to a location on the south side of Arcata Plaza. He had integrated antiques and solid wood furniture into his eclectic inventory and took on a partner, the late Tim Goodwin. Keith and Tim regularly re-stocked the store with purchases from San Francisco auction houses, and during those long drives Keith shared his vision that one day furniture would be delivered directly to the store.

In 1986, Keith and his new business partner Kristine Long, with a loan from Keith’s parents, purchased the first delivered shipment of new furniture from Whittier Wood Products, a line which continues to be an Arcata Exchange mainstay.

Finally, in 1988, Arcata Exchange moved to its present location on the plaza and the business continued to swell.

In 2000, Kristine sold her half of the business to Gene Joyce, who had been the store’s manager, but she continued on as co-owner with Keith of the building the store is housed in.

The success of the Arcata Exchange afforded Keith the luxury of being able to search out even bigger waves, and, during visits to the beaches of Costa Rica, he was smitten. He made trips to Central America as often as he could and finally built a beach home in Pavones, a place he extolled as his own surfer’s paradise.

While growing into adulthood, Keith had watched his younger brother Steven earn his pilot license and soar among the clouds. The day came when Keith, too, cast his eyes to the sky. He earned his pilot license in 1990 and gradually found himself traveling more and more often to Atlanta, Georgia, where Steven and his family had moved.

In 2000, Keith purchased a partially assembled Vans RV6A and in Steven’s garage the two brothers built the plane over a period of two years with assistance from their father, Robert; Steven’s son Ryan; and friend and fellow pilot Billy Waters.

Keith painted the plane a vibrant California yellow and had decals in the shape of flowers on a vine placed on its fuselage. While he called it “Yellow Bird,” he good- naturedly took ribbings from fellow pilots who referred to it as “Flower Child.”

Keith had always jokingly remarked that he wouldn’t have children until he was 50. He almost kept that promise. At age 49, he joyously welcomed his son Christopher Lee into the world on April 16, 2003. Immediately, flying and surfing were replaced by Keith’s overwhelming commitment to the child he took delight in calling “Son.”

Keith became a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 1025, founded by his brother Steven in 1992 and based at Covington Airport in Georgia. With their shared loved for flying, the brothers became co-pilots in life as well, and built a hangar on land they purchased in Monticello, Georgia.

Those who knew Keith also were blessed to have the opportunity to watch Christopher as he grew from a toddler to an inquisitive child. “When Christopher was with his father he was always asking questions like why the clouds were white, the sky blue, and what made the wind blow,” Steven remembers. “It wasn’t unusual to see Christopher wading through small puddles between hangars at the airport with his father on the trail behind him.”

He was a loving and devoted father and encouraged his son to live life with uncompromising gusto. “Together they made an awesome team, with both inspiring one another along their spiritual path,” says Kristine, whom Christopher affectionately called “Aunt Kristine.”

Keith and Christopher spent their last day among us sharing their mutual joy for flying. They will be lovingly remembered always by family members Robert and Anne Newcomer, Robin Newcomer and Paul Kreimeier, Steven and Marian Newcomer, Elyssa and James Quinones, Amber Newcomer-Dyer, Robbie Newcomer-Dyer, Bethany Newcomer, Ryan Newcomer, Andrea Quiros and Kristine Long, along with other family members from across the United States and friends whose names go on and on.

Keith and Christopher so touched the lives of the people they knew that more than 200 of them turned out for a swiftly organized memorial service planned by EAA Chapter 1025 at Covington Airport on Oct. 23. And the tributes continued.

On the morning of Oct. 31st, more than 25 surfing buddies gathered off the North Jetty in Humboldt near one of Keith's favorite places to surf for a special "paddle out" tribute for their friend. They were joined by more than 10 of Keith's fellow pilots and friends who participated in a simultaneous "fly-over," joined on the jetty's beach by friends and family.

Later that day, the lives of Keith and Christopher were celebrated at a memorial service that drew more than 250 of his friends and family to the D Street Neighborhood Community Center in Arcata.

While Christopher was laid to rest in Athens, Georgia, Keith's family sent him off to sea on Oct. 30 in a private ceremony.

ifts in the memory of Keith and Christopher Newcomer may be made to support charitable work to the Humboldt Area Foundation, 373 Indianola Road, Bayside, CA 95524.

(This story, written by Keith's sister Robin, a retired daily newspaper reporter and editor, is the most difficult piece she ever has had to write.)

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