Long-time Bunnell attorney Alicia Washington remembers one of the reasons she chose Bunnell as a place to settle and open a practice: “I saw Mr. Nowell’s billboard as I drove in from Daytona to look for office space,” she said of Sid Nowell, who had opened his practice locally in 1999. “It impressed me that an attorney of color was successful enough to have a prominent billboard in Flagler county. It helped me believe that I could be successful here as well.”
“I went to see Mr. Nowell upon opening my office,” Washington, the president-elect of the Flagler County Bar Association, continued. “He offered words of encouragement and support. He said if there was anything he could do to help me, just give him a call. That meant a lot to me. His presence will be greatly missed. But the young lawyers that he helped along the way will carry on his legacy of honor, duty, and respect for the law and our community.”
Sidney Maurice Nowell died Saturday morning after contending with congestive heart failure for six weeks and advancing Parkinson’s according to a note posted by his wife, Sharon Piety-Nowell, on her Facebook page. He was 69.
A native of Barbados who moved to the Bronx, N.Y., when he was very young, his career and personal involvements were kaleidoscopic from the start. It included a decade as a labor attorney with the National Labor Relations Board, back when unions still had muscle, then many years as a corporate attorney, representing Big Oil along the way but also newspapers, and a decade as an assistant general counsel for the New York Housing Authority, until 1995. He was on many arbitration and mediation panels–the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, the 7th, 8th and 11th Judicial Circuits in Florida, the 5th District Court of Appeal–developing a course curriculum on “interest-based bargaining” and mediation techniques while he was with the FAA’s Center for Management Development. He spent some 300 hours in the classroom during those years, teaching. He also addressed diversity matters in dispute resolution for the American Arbitration Association in Orlando in 2007, and became a sought-after arbitrator for the U.S. Postal Service after he moved to Flagler.
“His expertise was recognized because not everybody could be an arbitrator on the federal level,” Dennis Bayer, the Flagler Beach attorney and Nowell’s partner for six years, said.
When he ran for a circuit judge seat in the Seventh Judicial Circuit here in 2010–he was among six candidates, among them his former but short-lived partner, Marc Dwyer, in a race that Dennis Craig won–he said that by then he’d spent exactly half his career representing defendants and half representing plaintiffs.
He’d actually first practiced law in Wisconsin: he’d graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in history before getting his law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School and being admitted to the bar there in 1975–before moving back to New York City in 1978 and getting specialized in labor and tax law through New York University’s law school.
Moving to Flagler in 1998, his earliest years were divided between a stint with what was then known as Chiumento & Guntharp and, more briefly, with Knight, Dwyer & Nowell, before establishing himself in private practice. He was closely associated with the Flagler NAACP and developed a friendship with Jim Manfre, serving as Manfre’s agency attorney both terms Manfre served as sheriff (in 2001-04 and 2013-16). Along the way, Nowell was president of the Flagler County Bar for six years, between 2004 and 2009.
Manfre came to know him better than many locally. “Sid Nowell was good and gentle man and he made those of us who had the honor of being his friend better people for knowing him,” Manfre said in an email. “When confronted with anger, disappointment and prejudice, he always chose healing not hatred. Sid broke many barriers as one of the first black students at the University of Wisconsin in the sixties, as the attorney for the Sheriff’s Office for eight years and the City of Bunnell Attorney for almost a decade.
“I remember him relating a story when he first arrived on the University campus in Madison. A young white woman approached him and was staring. He asked if anything was wrong. She said that she was sorry, but she had never seen a black man before. He laughed and bought her a cup of coffee. That was how he approached all difficult situations with a calmness and kindness that affected those around him. We could all learn from his view of life. It was fitting he became a mediator at the end of his legal career striving to reach a consensus from both sides of an argument. He will be missed by his loved ones, friends and community. I hope we never forget his impact on this county that he served with such distinction.”
His last association as a partner in a law firm was with the Flagler Beach law firm of Nowell, Bayer and McGuire (Bayer and McGuire are now in solo practice), retiring from there two years ago after six years.
“He broke many racial barriers in his life but he was never bitter,” Bayer said of Nowell. “He had a reputation being a straight shooter. He had a lot of knowledge, a lot of experience, life experience, that helped him deal with his clients well. He experienced a lot growing up. That helped him have a lot of compassion for his clients, which I think made him an effective attorney. He was passionate about representing his clients, he believed in what he was doing, particularly when it came to social issues. Politically he was very astute. Even if you didn’t agree on things you could always have a very good discussion of the issues back and forth without getting into any kind of animosity. He always enjoyed have a good political debate.”
Bayer noted Nowell’s “true passion for coaching and mentoring” and his “countless hours helping others with no expectation of reward or attention to himself.”
He coached high school basketball for years, he taught at Bethune-Cookman University, was a volunteer attorney for the NAACP, a board member of the Flagler County Education Foundation, and in 2017 was appointed to the board of what is now the AdventHealth Palm Coast Foundation. And he developed innumerable private friendships, as with Gus Ajram, the long-time auto dealer in Palm Coast and Bunnell who called him “an older brother, mentor, true friend, gentleman, and honest professional who practiced by the book.”
Nowell had a powerful intellect but never showed it off, had his very definite ideas about politics and the law, but tended to present them with deliberate dispassion: “There’s no question that our system works,” Nowell said in a FlaglerLive interview when he was running for judge. “However, there are two particular criteria that sometimes cause problems. One is time and the other is money. Unfortunately in our system, sometimes you get as much justice as you can afford, and that’s a travesty. With regards to criminal cases, one of the things that I’m most concerned about are the number of juveniles that wind up getting felony records without understanding the long-term consequences of pleading to a felony. Often times that’s a result of money. They did not have the wherewithal or the resources to hire private counsel, and that’s with all due respect to the public defender. But they’re tremendously overworked. The second issue that sometimes poses an obstacle is time. Particularly here in this circuit, our judges are overloaded.”
Those who knew him also knew the simmer of his humor and the commitment to his convictions, both aptly combined and illustrated in the image of an old protester he reposted on his Facebook page in January, part of an Occupy Democrats item on a woman’s march dating back two years: the old woman is shown holding up a sign that reads, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this fucking shit.”
His wife, Sharon Piety-Nowell, wrote in her post: “I lost my loving partner of 23 years and my best friend. We had the best life imaginable and so many memories. Sid meant so much to so many people and he made the world he touched a gentler and more caring place.” She said he had specifically requested no funeral or memorial services. “He wanted his family and friends to remember him in your hearts and pass on his loving ways.”