From the Ashes

The phoenix hope can wing her way through the desert skies and, still defying fortune’s spite, arise from ashes and revive.
       - Miguel de Cervantes
Mark Newlen has learned far more than he could ever have imagined about the flight of the phoenix.
With him, though, it’s not myth but harsh reality. He knows well of fortune’s spite and ashes, for fortune – no, fate – with blatant disregard for fairness, decency, and compassion, has conspired to immolate every fiber of his being. He knows, too, about hope and revival.
Newlen’s life journey these past five years has been daunting, devious, and fraught with peril. There were days when he wondered if he could lift his head, much less smile. Some days, he wondered if he could even go on. What’s the use? he often thought. Really. What’s the use? Pain became his constant companion. Darkness enshrouded him. There seemed no end to his heart-rending odyssey.
Slowly, though, he began to rise from the ashes. His days became brighter if not always totally joyous and idyllic. He found purpose that had once seemed only a mirage. He began to feel whole again. Has he recovered? No, but he’s recovering. And recovering well.
“This has been the most difficult time of my life,” said Newlen, a long-time Collegiate School coach and Middle School physical education teacher. “Especially with the love of my life – Kim – going through breast cancer and being in remission for 10 years and having it come back and only seven months after it came back, she passed away (on February 8, 2014).
“I’ve really struggled missing her and went through a time of depression. All the things I’d dreamed about changed in a period of months. I wasn’t able to handle it in the best way. I was physically exhausted. Emotionally, I was torn. Mentally, I was questioning my faith and what was ahead for me.”
Questioning his faith? If you know Mark Newlen, you’d say, unequivocally, “Never.” He would have too. Until the crisis of his life arrived.
“I thought, Here’s Kim, an unbelievably wonderful person who had such a strong and deep faith. To see her handle her challenges remarkably well with tremendous courage…,” he said. “I was in deep pain seeing her go through all that she was going through. I’m kind of introspective. I ended up going into a shell. It took a while to get out.”
Even as his wife struggled and after her passing, Newlen sought treatment for his physical and emotional health. He missed time from school as he attempted to gain his bearings, heal, and find meaning in life. The days were long and hard. The nights much longer, much more challenging, and intensely wearing on his heart and soul.
Thankfully, flickers of hope appeared even in his darkest moments.
“It was a combination of things: good medical care and great friends who hung in there and encouraged me at my lowest times when I needed it desperately but didn’t always know how to receive it,” he said. “Collegiate was wonderful about allowing me to recoup and recover. They had faith that I could come back and be the teacher and person I’d always wanted to be.
“As time went on, I just put one foot in front of the other. Coming back and teaching and being around the kids was refreshing. At first, it was overwhelming. Slowly but surely, getting into a routine and seeing kids enjoy sports and grow in their physical lives…I thought I had a chance to be a positive influence.”
At 6-4, 185-pounds, Newlen was an All-State basketball player at Robert E. Lee High (Staunton) in the early 1970’s. He earned a scholarship to the University of Virginia and played four years for the Cavaliers. He served as head boys basketball coach at St. Anne’s-Belfield from 1986 through 1989 and at Collegiate from 1989 through 1996.
He understands fitness. He preaches conditioning to his classes. He’s lived healthfully. He doesn’t drink or smoke. But when he visited his family physician, Dr. Michael Taylor, this past April, he tipped the scales at 300 pounds. His labs showed high cholesterol and triglyceride levels. He was on a collision course with Type 2 diabetes and cardio-vascular disease.
“My healthy habits had gone by the wayside,” he admitted. “I knew things had to change. I told the doctor, ‘Give me a chance. Give me a few months and see if I can work out, eat better, lose weight.’ I had a life-and-death decision to make. I could either extend my life or limit my years.”
Newlen adopted three mantras: No Excuses. Whatever it takes. Stay the course.
“You can always make excuses,” he said. “Mine was ‘I don’t feel like it.’ Emotionally, I wasn’t excited about a whole lot. I was eating unhealthy things, but it was enjoyable to eat those things. If it takes eating salads every day or tofu or Jello or lima beans, drinking protein shakes and cutting out ice cream, milkshakes, and candy, I’ll do it.
“Now, I try to eat a lot of vegetables and fruits. I eat some chicken, salmon, and shrimp. I’ve cut out fast food and drink a lot of water, Gatorade, and no-calorie drinks. On the workout side, I just started walking. Two miles. Three miles. Six days a week.
“This can’t be short term. It has to be long term.”
At last count, Newlen had shed 60 pounds. His real goal, though, isn’t measurable. It’s happiness, fulfillment, and perspective. It’s gaining a new lease on life.
“I didn’t set out to lose 60 pounds,” he said. “I set out to lose 10 to 15. Even set smaller goals. One or two pounds this week. By the end of the month, five to eight pounds. If I’d set out to lose 60, it would have been overwhelming. I’d just have been discouraged. Even if the weight didn’t come off, I knew the exercise would be helpful for my cardio-vascular system. Losing weight was the extra benefit.”
There was added motivation.
In August 2016, his daughter Kali (Collegiate ’10, JMU ’14) left the West Coast where she worked for Mindy Weiss Party Consultants in Beverly Hills for two years and settled in Northern Virginia. This past October 8, she and Alex Burden were married.
“There was that moment in the doctor’s office,” Newlen recalled, “when I’m thinking, I’m the father of the bride. I don’t want to be some sluggish, overweight guy. I want Kali to be proud of me. I want Kim to be proud of me. When the wedding came, I wanted to look sharp. I wanted people to say, ‘Yeah, Newlen is making a comeback.’ And I wanted to encourage people when they saw me.”
Which, friends, is why he agreed to share his story.
He was on a downward spiral. He was consumed by anguish. He saw no escape. Now, there’s that old twinkle in his eyes and smile on his face that friends had not seen in a while and wondered if they would ever see again.
“I’ve lived a very blessed life,” Newlen said. “The Lord’s been good to me. I was married to the most incredible woman for almost 30 years. To see Kali happy is wonderful. I’m enjoying more than ever working with the young people here at Collegiate. I appreciate things much more deeply. I cherish time with friends and with Kali on a deeper level. Sometimes, the tough times help you realize how many blessings you have.
“I felt sorry for myself too long. I needed to come out of that, but I needed help. We’re all in this together. Everybody needs encouragement more than they even realize sometimes. Without a faith life and support system, the path is difficult. I’ve come through a very, very dark and difficult time, but I’m in a good place now. Because of God’s grace, friends, and family, I’m getting back to being the way I’d like Mark Newlen to be.”
Date Posted
  • Kali Newlen-Burden
    Proud of you, Daddio!
  • Schnucki McCabe
    Love You Mark Newlen! Stay Strong!
  • Laurie Shadowen
    Mark is not only a wonderful colleague, but an incredible inspiration to all that know and love him. Keep up your positive lifestyle Mark!