'Fat Cat' hooks Minnesota fishing fans with humor and the hard reality of his cancer as a child

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United States of St. Jude - Minnesota

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WABASHA, Minnesota — He’s got a big, booming voice, a big laugh and big personality — as big as the Great Outdoors, you might say. And then there’s his physique.

Well, people call him “Fat Cat” for a reason.

B. “Fat Cat” Newton once again arrived in this river town of 2,700 in early May to serve as emcee for the Dick Hiley St. Jude Bass Classic, an event that annually attracts scores of sport fishermen from across the Upper Midwest. Now in its 23rd year, the tourney has raised some $4.6 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Nestled along a stretch of the Mississippi River laced with islands, side channels and lakes, Wabasha is renowned as a fishing mecca, the local waters teeming with blue gill, walleye and bass. 

But Newton, a Virginia native, doesn’t travel all the way to Minnesota for a bass tournament just because he’s an avid angler — or, as he likes to say, “the best fisherman I’ve ever met.” He comes as a survivor of childhood cancer, one who is a big believer in the mission of St. Jude, even though he wasn’t treated there.

“I became a part of it (the tournament) because of St. Jude,” Newton said, “and what St. Jude stands for and what they do.”

United States of St. Jude - Minnesota

For the bass tourney and St. Jude, it doesn’t hurt that wherever he goes, the 42-year-old Newton is shadowed by a large and devoted social media audience — nearly 101,000 followers on Facebook and 42,500 on Instagram — drawn to his entertaining, often-slapstick posts about fishing and all things outdoors.

To get an idea of his brand of humor, think of famous comics through the years who have derived laughs from their roly-poly girth, made it part of their shtick. Think Chris Farley with a rod and reel.

In a video that has drawn 9.7 million Facebook views, Newton’s belly billows out from a way-too-small shirt and laps over tight elastic pants as he pretends to be a high-kicking, nunchuck-swinging martial-arts fighter ready to defend himself against an irate property owner on whose private pond he has trespassed.

In another farcical piece seen 216,000 times on Instagram, he stares into the camera, eyes ablaze, holding up what appears to be a bass in a wrapped package, suggesting that a market has committed the sacrilege of selling an iconic game fish for food.

“Jesus don’t want us eating bass!” he shouts.

Off-camera, Newton of course is more serious, more professional. “Fat Cat is a character,” he said. “My main objective is to put a smile on people’s faces.”

That he does. And if you suspected that Fat Cat, like so many comics and clowns of yore, turned to humor as a salve for a painful past, you’d be correct.

If you further surmised that his childhood cancer experience — and what it did to his family — was a big source of that pain, well, you’d be right about that, too.

Childhood turmoil

Newton grew up in Stafford County, Virginia, born into a long line of commercial fishermen who scoured the estuarine waters of the Potomac River for Maryland blue crab, rock fish, catfish and other species.

His childhood was turbulent from the start, in no small measure because of his parents’ youth. Newton’s mother was just 16 when he was born. “They were kids raising a kid,” he said.

Money was tight. The first family car Newton remembers was an old Dodge Duster purchased for $250. "We never went without," Newton said, but the family always seemed to struggle.

Escape came in the form of fishing. No matter how tumultuous things were at home, all would be well when Newton climbed into the boat with his dad each evening. “It was one of the only times when nobody argued.”

The strains on Newton’s family, however, would eventually reach a breaking point. When he was 9 years old, and by then had a 2-year-old brother, Newton got sick for a few days before anyone noticed.

“My parents … they partied hard, and I laid on the couch for three days. And I went to the bathroom and collapsed.”

After he was rushed to a clinic, then a hospital, Newton was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer. Doctors said his large size — he was chubby even then — may have helped save him because the blood cancer had progressed “pretty far along.”

Three years of chemotherapy ensued. But for the young boy, that may not have been the worst part.

Newton watched as his parents — who were having a hard enough time raising a healthy kid, let alone a sick one — crumbled under the emotional, financial and logistical strains of his cancer treatment. He couldn’t help but notice that his sickness was afflicting the entire family.

Every day seemed to bring new problems, new issues for his parents to argue about. They argued about how they would keep the lights on. They argued over who would take their boy to the hospital and stay with him.  

“I grew up around the whole domestic violence thing, and watching them fight,” Newton said. “I really do think it was the stress of me having cancer.”

United States of St. Jude - Minnesota

He felt the stress, too, and at times it became almost unbearable.

“I remember being in bed when we were in the hospital. I asked my mom: Put the pillow over my face because — I’d seen it on TV — I don’t want to live anymore.”

As he recalls this, Newton’s voice breaks, then goes silent for several seconds.

Fat Cat Newton — the jolly jokester of the johnboat, the merry maniac of the marina — is quietly sobbing, shattered by a 30-year-old memory.

After a pause, he speaks. “That memory hasn’t crossed my mind in a long time.”

“It tore my family apart”

As people around much of the world know, St. Jude specializes in pediatric cancer and other catastrophic childhood diseases. Caring for the sickest of kids, developing cures for the most challenging of diseases. Never sending families a bill.

But as patient families quickly find out, the no-bill policy for treatment, transportation, housing and food is just the start. In countless other less-tangible ways, St. Jude cares for the entire family — entertaining siblings, accommodating parents who have to run errands, supporting them when they miss work.

The point is to lift as much of family members’ burden off of them as possible, so they can focus solely on the child’s health.

Newton has learned about this, too. In recent years, he’s toured St. Jude, made connections with patients and spoken about how much better, or at least less traumatic, his own cancer experience might have been had his family gotten such support.

Newton speaks with authority, because while he recovered from the leukemia ordeal, his family did not. His mother, in particular, spiraled into ever-deeper personal and health problems.   

“It tore my family apart. It was a complete burden to everyone around,” he said.

“I saw firsthand what cancer can do to a family.”

That experience explains why Newton has embraced St. Jude the way he has. “They really alleviate all of that. When a child gets cancer, the child’s not the only one that suffers….I was sick and I didn’t feel good, (but) my family is the one that was in complete turmoil.”

The cancer experience wasn’t all bad, Newton will tell you. He recovered in part because he had a good support system. It helped that he was able to continue fishing through his sickness.

He also grew to understand the value of laughter and then worked to hone his sense of humor.

“I learned how to deal with different people — new people always sticking needles in my arm,” Newton said. “I think me cracking jokes as a kid and everything kind of helped me and the people around me deal with the situation.”

Using humor in conjunction with his first love, fishing, Newton has created a social media persona that’s almost literally larger than life. In his videos, he hollers, feigns outrage and inserts himself in far-fetched skits. The humor is silly, self-deprecating and often sidesplitting.

“I know what it’s like to have bad things going on,” he said, “so if I can take somebody’s mind off of that — their bad things — for just a minute a day or two minutes a day, I know how valuable that is to people.”

United States of St. Jude - Minnesota

At events like the Dick Hiley St. Jude Bass Classic, Newton gets to mix in some humor while promoting fishing and St. Jude. In the tourney, named for a deceased professional angler, participants do their own fundraising to compete for coveted early launch times that offer the best chance of landing big catches. This year, the top team raised nearly $97,000, more than 20 percent of the projected total of $450,000 for the whole event. 

Fishing, laughter and St. Jude. It’s quite the trifecta for someone who lived through pain, turmoil and ineffable sadness as a child, then grew into a man with a big belly and an even bigger heart.

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