Remembering quiet but tireless community and environmental advocate Bill Sell | WUWM 89.7 FM

Milwaukee lost a quiet, yet powerful activist earlier this year. Many of Bill Sell’s 83 years were dedicated to civil rights and social justice and peace, starting with his opposition to the Vietnam War.

Later in life, Sell funneled much of his energy into public transit and environmental advocacy.Along the way, he influenced the lives of people around him.

David Sartori walked through his dad Bill Sell’s now-nearly -empty 1920’s house. It’s just east of Humboldt Park in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood.

Sartori takes his father’s legacy seriously – and like any good child, wants us to get the story right. It’s a rich and multifaceted tale.


courtesy of David Sartori


Biking The Hoan remained a goal of Bill Sell. He and others believed it was the most logical route for both bike commuters and enthusiasts from Bay View to downtown Milwaukee.

“You could just do 3 or 5 minutes of this electric background – anti-Vietnam war protesting and then housing marches and meeting Father Groppi and Bill helping him to get involved in anti Vietnam War activities, and THEN you could say that in his later years Bill became a public transportation advocate, got involved in that little trolley thing, he was a well known bicyclist,” Sartori adds, “He was the lead on Bike The Hoan which was an effort to put a bike path on the Hoan Bridge.”

That’s just a fraction of Sell’s activism.

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Bill Sell – standing – during his tenure at St. Catherine Catholic Church at 51st and Center Sts in Milwaukee.

Born in 1938, the second of eight children, Sell began his adult life as a Catholic priest. From 1966 to 1969 he served at a Milwaukee parish.

“He was put on a leave or a sabbatical prior to meeting my mom due to his antiwar stance, protests and activities,” Sartori says.

Sell met Marquette University student Sue Sartori in 1970. Their wedding was front page news in the Milwaukee Sentinel.

“They had a big hippy wedding in Washington Park. I was already born, but I was lucky enough to be adopted by Bill,” Sartori says.

The marriage was short, but Sartori says he was lovingly raised by both his parents, just in separate dwellings.

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David Sartori (left) says over the years he and his dad did a lot of traveling and laughing together.

As an adult , life took Sartori to New York City and later Florida, but he remained close to his dad.

When Sell’s health failed, Sartori spent the final 9 months with his dad.

During that time, Sartori started sorting through his dad’s archives – essays he’d written, photos he’d saved and other memorabilia.

Only then did he begin to comprehend the depth of Sell’s life’s work.

“All these nooks and crannies in the city that Bill had influence in that he never promoted, but they pop up,” Sartori says.

Joyce Tang Boyland is among those Sell influenced. in September, she biked 15 miles to attend Sell’s green burial at Forest Home Cemetery.

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Joyce Tang Boyland (left) and Anna Marie Opgennorth at Bill Sell’s home after his funeral service.

“I figured taking the bike there was the right way to honor him,” Boyland says.

Boyland has long been an advocate for sustainability, espousing riding a bike or bus rather than jumping in an automobile. But she often felt isolated in her mission.

She says meeting Bill Sell in 2009 initially through emails to mass transit advocates – changed that. “He wrote these amazing letters that were so insightful and persuasive and kind,” Boyland recalls.

Sell then invited her to join a county transit advisory committee. Boyland calls the gesture empowering….

“He showed that for citizens to get involved in the way things work, there is a route for that ,” Boyland says.

Bill Sell not only rallied around public transit, he was a voracious reader, loved opera and ballet. He was also a folk dancing aficionado.

That’s how Jeanette Tries’ friendship with him began in 2005.

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courtesy Jeanette Tries


Jeanette Tries and Bill Sell dancing with a young partner.

“I was at the art museum attending a concert. Bill was part of the folk dancing community and they were doing an exhibition during the intermission,” Tries says.

Tries says Sell inspired her to take up folk dancing. “He loved it so much he wanted everyone to do it, so he helped,” she says.

Sell also nudged Tries to bike in the winter. She didn’t give up her car but says her awareness was heightened when Sell invited her to a talk he was giving.

“He took out a dollar bill and said ‘the moment I became aware that every dollar I spent on gas is going to the destruction of the planet’ …That was the day he gave up his car,” Tries says.

Katie Jesse had just graduated with a drawing and painting degree when she met Sell.

Jesse was creating puppets and masks for the now-defunct All People’s Parade. Sell was an avid volunteer.

“He was just so lovely. I can’t describe it any other way,” Jesse says.

Jesse says she knew nothing of the early chapters of Sell’s life until she walked into his home after his funeral.

“I didn’t know what an avid writer he was and that he wrote articles for the Bay View Compass. And it was really fun to discover things about this man that I already thought so highly of,” she says.

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David Sartori displayed his father’s writings, photographs and other artifacts in his Bay View home for friends to view after Bill’s funeral. Friends were invited to take home a book or other item in Bill’s memory.

That day, Jesse left with a souvenir. David Sartori had set out some of his dad’s vast book collection, inviting people to take something to remember Bill by.

“I took a couple of art books but I also happened to be going to a baby shower the next day,” she says.

So Jesse selected a collection of Grimm fairy tales.

“I told my friend this came from the house of a man I respected deeply and it feels very appropriate to give to your baby,” Jesse says.

Just two weeks ago, her friend’s son was born.

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Bill Sell was proud of the native prairie he created in the backyard of his Bay View home.

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