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Her Name Was Ida 

Remembering Humboldt's first COVID-19 death for a life well lived

click to enlarge Ida Newell at her 85th birthday party at Roy's Club in Eureka in 2007.

Photo by Mark McKenna

Ida Newell at her 85th birthday party at Roy's Club in Eureka in 2007.

Ida Adelia Newell, an avid reader with a quick wit who loved golf and traveling the world but always returned to her lifelong home in Humboldt County, died May 17 of COVID-19. She was 97.

Ida's long life bridged Humboldt County's present and its past, from bootleggers and United Service Organization dances to the Redwood Coast Dixieland Jazz Festival and ultimately the global pandemic that has altered life here indefinitely. But those who knew her best say Ida lived with a smile, a laugh and an ever present curiosity, engaging life at every turn with a firm sense of what was right.

"She was kind of a joker but she was serous about a lot of things," says her older brother Evo Fanucchi over the phone. "She was just a nice person but she wanted things to be her way — not her way but the way things should be. She didn't take much from anyone."

Born Nov. 28, 1922, in what was then Trinity Hospital in Eureka, the youngest of Angelo and Teresa Fanucchi's three children, Ida spent the first couple years of her life in Arcata before the family moved to an apartment on Eureka's D Street above what would later become Roy's Club restaurant, a community institution named after Ida's eldest brother. After moving to Eureka, she met Jennie Maffia. Maffia was a little more than a year older than Ida but the two made fast friends.

"They got to be friends and were friends from then on," Evo Fanucchi says. "They grew up together and had lots of adventures."

"They were almost like sisters," Lynn McKenna, Maffia's daughter and Ida's goddaughter adds later.

With a chuckle, McKenna recounts a favorite story of her godmother's: Maffia and Ida's brothers were all in school when the family moved to Eureka, so Teresa Fanucchi sent little Ida trundling off with them to start the school year. But the kindergarten teacher took one look at Ida and sent her back home, saying she was still too young to attend.

After having to wait another year or two, Ida attended Eureka City Schools, ultimately graduating from Eureka High School in 1940. But Ida's childhood was anything but typical, as she noted during a 2017 interview with the North Coast Journal as Roy's Club offered its final dinner service after nearly a century in operation.

Ida, whose features favored her father, showed up wearing a black and white scarf, her pear-gray hair airily coifed with a forward curl above each ear (she was very particular about her hair, those who knew her say) and recounted how the place was a speakeasy when she first moved in at the age of 2.

"Upstairs they had what we called the plant," she said, explaining that there was a pipe with a tap that dispensed water if you turned the knob one way, whiskey if you turned it the other to fool authorities should one try to test the spigot. Ida smiled and waved a hand, "We used to play with it."

Ida also recounted how on one of her father's bootlegging runs, he dropped her, Evo and Teresa off in Calistoga while he picked up 5-gallon drums of grain alcohol and loaded them into his truck. "My father made a bed over the top," she said, adding that he had the children lie on top for the ride home. When a highway patrolman stopped them for a broken tail light, "My father turned around," Ida recalled, jabbing her finger in the air, "and told us, 'Don't you open your eyes — you two stay asleep.'" The children did and the officer sent Angelo and his family on their way.

When the U.S. entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Angelo and Teresa — both of whom had immigrated to the U.S., leaving their family homes in Tassignano, Italy, among a wave of millions of Italians who fled poverty to seek better lives elsewhere — were considered "enemy aliens" and forbidden from coming within four blocks of Humboldt Bay. They moved temporarily to a house on Fifth Street, leaving Ida, a U.S. citizen, to run the businesses for about six months. Ida's first job outside the family business was down the street at the original Bon Boniere, where she scooped ice cream with Maffia.

During the war, Maffia and Ida frequented USO dances at the Eureka Municipal Auditorium and after the war ended, Ida attended Craddocks Business School. With a diploma in hand, she went to work in various local insurance offices, including Pettengill-Merryman General Insurance, and agencies owned by Harry J. Adorni and Myron Abrahamson. Through much of it, after clocking out of her day job she would grab an apron at Roy's Club.

"After work, she'd come down at 4 or 5 in the afternoon and work as a cocktail waitress," Evo recalls. "She was very personable. She loved people, and we all got along pretty good. Roy was cooking, I tended bar and she was the cocktail waitress for a long time."

After a marriage to Joe McKay that didn't work out, Ida married Kenneth Newell in 1982 — the two hit it off over shared passions for travel and golf, with Roy having taught Ida the game.

"After they got married, they bought a travel trailer and traveled up to Alaska," Evo says. "They traveled quite a bit."

The pair took frequent road trips and would fly out to New York with Maffia and her family from time to time, where they would enjoy the big city, staying in the Algonquin Hotel and catching shows on Broadway. In retirement, the pair bought a second home in Arizona, where they'd spend winters on the golf course.

Kenny Newell died of Lou Gehrig's disease in 1992, which was tremendously hard in Ida, Evo says, and she moved back home to Eureka to live full time.

While Ida never had children, she adored kids, Evo says, and developed "very, very close" relationships with her nieces and nephews and was a fixture in Lynn McKenna's life.

"She was always involved in our birthday celebrations and holidays," McKenna says.

Traveling was also a mainstay throughout Ida's life, and she visited China, the Canary Islands, Brazil, Argentina, Peru and other countries on various trips. In 1996, she embarked on a month-long driving tour of Europe with Evo that took her to Italy for the first time. There she and Evo met family in Tassignano, near Lucca.

"We loved it there," Evo says wistfully, caught up in the memory of the trip. "We had a lot of fun, met a lot of people."

McKenna says the trip was incredibly important to Ida, noting "she was always very proud of her Italian heritage."

As Ida got older, she started putting her time into volunteering, first at the Redwood Coast Dixieland Jazz Festival, where she tended bar for the kick-off dance, worked various venues and helped with the children's concerts. Ida liked the music, McKenna says, adding that she also suspects Ida did it out of an affinity for her, recognizing how passionate McKenna was about the festival.

She also spent some time volunteering in the gift shop at St. Joseph Hospital after some friends encouraged her to find a way to get out and give back. McKenna says her godmother enjoyed her time there, running into acquaintances and chatting up strangers.

"Ida was a people person — she just liked being around people," she says.

One of the remarkable things about Ida's life according to those who knew her well was how she managed to forge deep, lasting friendships, some of which spanned decades. Central to some of these was an informal social group known as "The Ladies," who met for cocktails at 4 p.m. every Friday. Jennie Maffia and Edi Barlow were mainstays in the group, which also came to include Nancy Allen and Jean Neilson before broadening to a new generation of friends, including McKenna, Lorraine Losh, Janis Estevo and Lonni Magellan-Hodge.

"The cocktail group was a highlight of Ida's life," McKenna says, adding that while her godmother appreciated a good Martini or a scotch on the rocks, the company and the connections were the real highlight, as the group would often go from cocktails to dinner or some other outing. "The were important to Ida and all played a special part in her life."

Ida broke her ankle in 2016, which is what led her to Alder Bay Assisted Living. She liked it there, Evo and McKenna say, adding that she made friends with some residents and enjoyed time to herself in her room, watching golf and reading books. McKenna says Ida loved a good mystery but enjoyed fiction of all types, from Danielle Steel's romances to James Patterson's thrillers.

"She was perfectly content to sit in her room and read a book," she says.

During one of her last conversations with Ida, McKenna says her godmother said she was bored, having already read all the books in her room and everything in Alder Bay's library. She dropped off a bag of books and got a call a couple of days later from Ida, who'd read one and already started another.

The emotion is evident in Evo's voice when he talks about his sister's time at Alder Bay.

"They took beautiful care of her," he says. "She was very, very happy there."

Evo says he and his wife Catherine would go visit Ida once or twice a week until news of COVID-19 shuttered the facility to visitors in late February or early March.

"When the virus hit, we called each other every day," Evo says, adding that he spoke to his sister the day she passed.

Ida had tested positive for the virus a couple of days earlier, on May 15, as a part of routine testing to contain the outbreak at the facility. She then called the morning of May 17 to say she'd spiked a fever and they were going to take her to the hospital as a precaution.

"She felt fine other than the fever — no other symptoms," Evo says, his voice trailing off. "It was so fast. I couldn't believe it that afternoon when we got the call."

But those who knew and loved Ida don't want her remembered as some grim statistic, the first local death tied to a once-in-a-generation pandemic. Instead, they'll remember her as a once in a generation personality, a kind, gregarious soul who loved to connect with people, to share stories and adventures.

On Friday, May 24, at 4 p.m., McKenna and others convened a video conference call to raise glasses and share a toast in Ida's honor. What they expected would take a few minutes spanned hours as more than a dozen people joined the call with stories to share.

Ida would have liked that.

"Ida was always a good time," says Evo's wife, Catherine Fanucchi. "She just always was a good time."

Ida's family has requested that in lieu of flowers, memorial donations be made in Ida's honor to the Eureka Rescue Mission, P.O. Box 76, Eureka, CA 95502.

Journal arts and feature editor Jennifer Fumiko Cahill's reporting for the Journal's Feb. 23, 2017, cover story "Last Night At Roy's" contributed to this story.

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor and prefers he/him pronouns. He can be reached at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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