William H. “Bill” Sell made it his mission to make Milwaukee a more just, livable, and environmentally resilient place. Sell, 83, died peacefully on Sept. 1 in his Bay View home after being cared for by his son, David Sartori, and home hospice.
Sell was a prominent lifelong activist on behalf of civil rights, peace, and progressive environmental, transportation and housing policies. Longtime friend and fellow advocate James Godsil, also of Bay View, said, “Bill Sell was a visionary and prophet who fought the good fight on many fronts and radiated through so many movements. His organizing and writings helped to move Milwaukee in positive directions. He had such a zest for living and for city life.”
Bill was born on Nov. 4, 1938, the second of eight children of Alice Olga (Roecker) Sell and George Peter Sell. (The two youngest, a son and daughter, died shortly after their births). He is survived by his son, David, and by his brother David of Hyogo-ken, Japan, and his sister Susie (Sell) Shannon of Muskego, Wisconsin. He is also survived by numerous nieces and nephews and by an extended family that includes many friends in the Milwaukee area and around the globe. He was preceded in death by his parents and by brothers George, Robert and Harvey Luke.
Sell attended St. Francis de Sales Seminary at St. Francis and Catholic University in Washington, DC, where he earned two master’s degrees. Ordained a Catholic priest in the 1960s, he served the community at St. Catherine’s Parish in Milwaukee until 1969, when he left the priesthood. Sell was among 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 religious-based anti-Vietnam War activists that staged a prominent local action in 1968.
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Bob Graf, one of the Milwaukee 14, knew Sell since 1967 and stayed in touch with him. “Bill always practiced what he preached. He was before his time in terms of being into the ‘green revolution.’ And he was always a gentle, kind, child, spiritual person,” Graf told the Shepherd Express.
Sell worked for several nonprofit agencies, including one he formed called the Center for International Life. In 1983 he founded The Last Word, an editing/transcribing business that served authors and editors nationwide until 2020. For many years Sell had an office in the Marshall Building on Water Street. Barbara Leigh, co-founder of the Friends Mime Theater and later the Milwaukee Public Theater, said, “Bill and I go way back. Early on, The Last Word handled all of our theater’s printing and mailing-list needs. Bill also was a great friend and cheerleader and attended all our performances.” Leigh noted that when Sell started advocating for transit issues, “He campaigned for the cause of accessibility for everyone. And now it is.”
Before moving to Bay View in the late 1980s, Sell lived in Milwaukee’s Riverwest and Lower East Side neighborhoods.
In 2007, Sell was honored by the Shepherd Express as “community activist of the year” for his advocacy for 21st-century transit infrastructure and dedication to community. Sell regularly rode his bicycle or used mass transit and had not owned a motor vehicle (or television) for decades—but was an early adopter of communication technologies.
In 2016, the Milwaukee Independent published 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 that interview, Sell spoke about his advocacy: “Activism seems to have been in my blood since I grew up in a working-class household. My Dad was a steward and became president of a local union…Fast forward to my years after school… I joined the Civil Rights marches, including one brutal march into the South Side. I helped get [civil rights advocate] Father Groppi involved in the anti-war movement…We became better acquaintances later on, after he left parish work.” Sell added, “My blood is the same these days, just shifting 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 the annual Bay View Bash celebration), and founder of Transit Matters. He also served on the steering committees for the Coalition for Advancing Transit, and more recently for Jane’s Walk MKE, a volunteer group that promotes citizen-led walks throughout the city. He was a longtime member of the Wisconsin Bike Fed and supported many community, media, and environmental organizations.
Sell used his writing skills to shine light on civic issues of concern to him—and the common good—in many published opinion pieces, and in directly contacting decision makers. He also wrote and published creative writing, including poetry. He signed his emails in recent years with this quote: “Be kind; for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”—Philo of Alexandria.
In keeping with his environmentalism, Sell chose to have a “green burial” at Milwaukee’s Forest Home Cemetery, 2405 W Forest Home Avenue (414-645-2632). A service will be held in the cemetery’s prairie section on Tuesday, Sept. 6 at 2 pm, followed by an open house reception from 4 to 8 pm at 2827 S. Lenox Street, Milwaukee. All are invited.
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