Niels Chew: The spark who started it all
NIELS CHEW was named Sonoma’s Alcalde in 2010, one of many accolades he acquired.
Current conversations in Sonoma about Niels Chew, who died on Monday at 82, are hopelessly heaped with hyperbole.
His friends and acquaintances seem incapable of referring to him without resorting to words like “angel,” “mentor,” “inspiration,” “unbelievable,” “generous,” “giving,” “compassionate” and “endlessly kind.”
More than one person has referred to him as Sonoma’s community conscience.
There appears to be a consensus that Niels Chew was a model for how others would like to shape and live their lives.
He and his wife Susan arrived in Sonoma in 1973 to build the Dowling Miner Magnetics Corporation, and generations of Sonoma Valley school kids were recipients of Chew’s magnetic generosity, his company a way station for classroom field trips. It also became an employment opportunity for people with developmental disabilities when Chew partnered with Becoming Independent to give some of its clients jobs.
The objective landmarks of Chew’s Sonoma presence provide some indication of his interests, his efforts and his skills. Dowling Miner Magnetics was named 2003 Business of the Year by the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce. Chew was named Sonoma’s honorary Alcalde in 2010. He served on the boards of the Sonoma Valley Hospital Foundation, Operation Youth and the Sonoma Overnight Shelter, to name just a few of the organizations he supported and inspired.
But those things aren’t the true measure of the man.
Laura Zimmerman, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, insists on using the “A” word.
“He was really an angel of the schools. He gave his time, he gave his supplies, he gave his everything. I can’t say enough about him.”
Neither can Kathy Witkowicki, who calls Chew, “My hero, my mentor, my friend. He’s a big part of my life.”
Witkowicki’s life is permanently bonded to the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance which was born in the crucible of her friendship with Chew.
“I was a parent volunteer, trying to raise funds for outdoor education. Someone sent me to Niels, he went to every member of the Chamber of Commerce and we exceeded our goal. That was my first fundraising experience with Niels Chew.”
It wouldn’t be her last.
Witkowicki’s kids were students at Flowery School which, at the time, was having problems with bad test scores. Chew wanted to do something to help Flowery, so he made Witkowicki an offer. He would hire her at Dowling Magnetics for 10 hours a week. Her job: school resource coordinator at Flowery.
Witkowicki began writing grants and, with the help of principal Sandy Zimmerman, produced a proposal for a mentoring program. The rest is local legend. The grant brought volunteers onto campus to help kids read. Chew became a founding member of the Mentoring Alliance board. Mentoring Alliance now serves 450 students at eight public schools with 450 volunteer mentors. It has become a force of nature.
“He was my guardian angel throughout,” says Witkowicki. “I mentioned we needed a fax machine – three hours later, there it was. He was always there. He would pick up and deliver things in his van. He got a pool table for the high school program. He was just an unbelievable giver.”
Witkowicki likes to explain that Chew would describe their relationship this way, “He was the spark, I was the fire.”
In honor of the conflagration of good works Niel Chew inspired, Witkowicki is planning the initiation of an annual scholarship program for a college-bound graduate of the Mentoring Alliance. It will be called, of course, The Spark Award.
“For me,” Witkowicki concludes, “he was a philanthropist, a visionary, a mentor, and the spark that started it all. I will forever be grateful to him for being my mentor.”
Memorial services for Niels Chew have not yet been set. His family asks that, in lieu of flowers, Niels would appreciate a donation to the Stand By Me Mentoring Alliance.