In Memory of




Obituary for William H. Sell

William H. “Bill” Sell, 83, a prominent lifelong activist for civil rights, peace, and progressive environmental and transportation polices, died peacefully on September 1st in his home in Bay View. He had been under the care of his son, David Sartori, and home hospice professionals.

Sell was born on November 4, 1938 in Hales Corners, the second oldest of six children born to George Peter Sell and Alice Olga (Roecker) Sell. He is survived by his son, David, and by his brother David, of Nara-ken, Japan, and sister Susie (Sell) Shannon of Muskego, WI. He is also survived by numerous nieces, nephews and by an extended family that includes his many friends in the Milwaukee area and around the globe.

Bill Sell was preceded in death by his parents and by brothers George, Robert and Harvey Luke.

In keeping with his environmentalism, Sell chose to have a “green burial” at Milwaukee’s Forest Home Cemetery.

A service will be held in the Prairie Section of the cemetery on Tuesday, September 6th at 2pm.

Sell attended St. Francis Seminary in St. Francis and Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where he earned two master’s degrees. He was ordained a Catholic priest through the 60’s and was an pastor at St. Catherine’s Church in Milwaukee until 1969, when he left the priesthood. Sell was among Milwaukee’s Catholic community of civil rights, anti-war and social justice activists. He was an associate of civil rights leader Fr. James Groppi, and members of “The Milwaukee 14” in 1968 - a group of religious-based pacifist protestors against the Vietnam War.

Bill worked for several nonprofits, including one he organized called the Center for International Life. In 1983 he founded The Last Word, his downtown-based editing/transcribing business serving authors and editors nationwide.

Before moving to Bay View in the late 1980s, and purchasing a home on Lenox Street in 1997, 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.

In 2016, the Milwaukee Independent did a profile of Sell called “The Conscience of Bay View.” In that interview, Sell spoke about his lifelong 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 [that] faced a brutal strike against GE X-Ray. Fast forward to my years after school…I joined the Civil Rights marches, including one brutal march into the south side. I helped get Father [civil rights advocate Jim] Groppi involved in the anti-war movement...”

In 2016, Michael Horne wrote in Urban Milwaukee: “Sell was one of the earliest advocates for bicycling over the Hoan Bridge, which is not to say his life is filled with disappointments. His constant advocacy for social justice and transportation issues is well-documented in his numerous writings, and through his efforts and those of others, the bicycling situation in Milwaukee continues to improve.”

Sell was a founding member of the Bay View Neighborhood Association (which launched the “Chill on the Hill” outdoor concert series and the Bay View Bash), and founder of Transit Matters. He also served on the steering committees for the Coalition for Advancing Transit, and for Jane’s Walk MKE. He was a longtime member of the Wisconsin Bike Fed and of the Public Policy Forum.

Sell used his writing skills to shine light on issues of concern to him - and the common good - in many published opinion pieces, or by directly lobbying 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.”