William H. “Bill” Sell is on a mission to make Milwaukee a more just, livable, and environmentally responsible place. Sell, 83, died peacefully Sept. 1 at his Bay View home after being cared for by his son, David Sartori, and a home hospice.
Sell was a longtime and prominent activist on behalf of civil rights, peace, and progressive environmental, transportation, and housing policies. Longtime friend and fellow defender James Godsil, also from Bay View, said: “Bill Sell was a visionary and a prophet who fought the good fight on so many fronts and shined through so many moves. His organization and his writings helped move Milwaukee in positive directions. He had such a joy of living and living in the city.
Bill was born on November 4, 1938, the second of eight children born to Alice Olga (Roecker) Sell and George Peter Sell. (The two youngest, a son and a daughter, died shortly after birth). He is survived by his son, David, and his brother David of Hyogo-ken, Japan, and his sister Susie (Sell) Shannon of Muskego, Wisconsin. He is also survived by many nieces and nephews and an extended family which includes many friends in the Milwaukee area and around the world. He was predeceased by his parents and by brothers George, Robert and Harvey Luke.
Sell attended St. Francis de Sales Seminary in St. Francis and Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where he earned two master’s degrees. Ordained a Catholic priest in the 1960s, he served the community of St. Catherine’s Parish in Milwaukee until 1969, when he left the priesthood. Sell was part of Milwaukee’s religious community of civil rights, anti-war, and social justice activists. He was an associate of civil rights leader Father James Groppi and members of the Milwaukee 14, a group of anti-Vietnam War religious activists who organized a prominent local action in 1968.
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Bob Graf, one of the Milwaukee 14, had known Sell since 1967 and kept in touch with him. “Bill always practiced what he preached. He was ahead of his time in terms of being in the ‘green revolution’. And he was always a sweet, kind, caring, spiritual person,” Graf told the Berger Express.
Sell has worked for several nonprofit agencies, including one he formed, the Center for International Life. In 1983 he founded The Last Word, a publishing/transcription business which served authors and publishers nationwide until 2020. For many years Sell had an office in the Marshall Building on Water Street . Barbara Leigh, co-founder of Friends Mime Theater and later Milwaukee Public Theater, said, “Bill and I have been going back for a long time. From the start, The Last Word handled all of our theater’s print and mailing list needs. Bill was also a great friend and cheerleader and attended all of our performances. Leigh noted that when Sell began advocating for transit issues, “He campaigned for the cause of accessibility for all. And now it is.
Before moving to Bay View in the late 1980s, Sell lived in the Riverwest and Lower East Side neighborhoods of Milwaukee.
In 2007, Sell was honored with the Berger Express as “Community Activist of the Year” for his advocacy for 21st century transit infrastructure and his dedication to the community. Sell regularly cycled or used public transportation and hadn’t owned a motor vehicle (or television) in decades, but he was an early adopter of communications technology.
In 2016, the Milwaukee Independent posted a profile titled “Bill Sell: Bay View’s Social Conscience and Champion of Building a Better Community.” http://www.milwaukeeindependent.com/profiles/bill-sell-bayview-conscience/
In this interview, Sell spoke about his advocacy: “Activism seems to have run in my blood ever since I grew up in a working-class family. My dad was a shop steward and became president of a local union… Fast forward to my after-school years… I joined civil rights marches, including a brutal march on the South Side. I helped get [civil rights advocate] Father Groppi involved in the anti-war movement… We got to know each other better later, after he left parish work. Sell added: “My blood is the same these days, just moving to other targets.”
Sell was a founding member of the Bay View Neighborhood Association (which launched the Chill on the Hill outdoor concert series and annual Bay View Bash celebration) and founder of Transit Matters. He has also served on the steering committees of the Coalition for Advancing Transit and, more recently, Jane’s Walk MKE, a volunteer group that promotes citizen walks across the city. He was a longtime member of the Wisconsin Bike Fed and supported numerous community, media and environmental organizations.
Sell has used his writing skills to shed light on the civic issues that concern him — and the common good — in numerous published opinion pieces and by directly contacting policymakers. He has also written and published creative writing, including poetry. He signed his emails in recent years with this quote: “Be nice; for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. ” — Philo of Alexandria.
In line with his ecologist, Sell chose to have a “green burial” at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee, 2405 W. Forest Home Avenue (414-645-2632). A service will be held in the prairie section of the cemetery on Tuesday, September 6 at 2 p.m., followed by an open house reception from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at 2827 S. Lenox Street, Milwaukee. All are invited.
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