My teacher, my mentor, my friend Weston H. Noble passed away in December. Since then tributes celebrating his career and legacy at Luther College have appeared in magazines, journals, newspapers and countless websites. Anyone that knew Mr. Noble also had a favorite musical moment singing Messiah at Luther, hearing the Nordic Choir under his direction or participating in the Dorian Band or Vocal Festivals.
I, too, have my favorite musical memories of Mr. Noble. I treasure them as priceless possessions that you only bring out and share with your dearest friends. He is without a doubt the greatest choral influence in my life. Therefore, it may surprise you that the remainder of this post will have nothing to do with Weston Noble the musician.
Since returning to Luther as a faculty member in the fall of 2012, my relationship with Mr. Noble changed. He began treating me as a colleague, a friend and his current connection to the Luther music department. I was humbled by this new relationship. Those days when my phone would ring and he'd say, "I have an idea" were the most thrilling and daunting phone conversations to receive. Thrilling because hearing his voice on the phone immediately transported me back to high school and receiving his recruiting call just as my family would sit down for dinner. Daunting because after a high school choral event on campus, he would call to say "I'm just sure you were planning on writing handwritten notes to all two hundred and fifty singers in the choir." (hint, hint) I always did just as he suggested.
Yet, this isn't about remembering Mr. Noble for his invaluable leadership at Luther College, his brilliant conducting career or even about his legacy through scholarships, facilities and fundraising campaigns. I want to share some lessons that Mr. Noble taught me over the last couple of years of his life.
Humor. This man who truly became a legend in his profession also had an unbelievable quick wit. I'm reminded of a time that he was recovering in the nursing home. His body was weak and his speech was regaining its fluidity. Yet, his mind was really very good. I had stopped to visit him one day in the afternoon. He wasn't able to get out of bed and even propping up his body in bed was not terribly comfortable. Yet, he wanted to have a conversation, not just me talking to him. So amidst the grimaces and groans, we were able to sit him at an angle and have an active conversation. During our visit, a nurse's aid stopped in to ask if he'd be interested in a snack. He quietly asked, "What do you have?" She proceeded to list off items such as yogurt, a banana, applesauce and other healthy items. After not being able to hear her reciting the list twice, I spoke up and said, "I know he loves applesauce." She smiled and reached for a container of the applesauce and a spoon and placed it on a tray near his bed. His quiet voice asked the nurse's aid, "do you think you could feed this to me?" Thinking he was still rather uncomfortable, this kind young woman smiled and said, "absolutely." She reached for the container and spoon and began scooping out the first bite. Mr. Noble cocked his head toward me and gave me a crooked grin and a wink of the eye. I saw him just minutes before reaching for and holding letters and cards he'd received so I questioned why he had asked for this assistance, but that wink and a grin to me quickly reminded me that his sense of humor and devilish charm were just fine.
Memory. For those who sang for Mr. Noble, we were constantly aware of his incredible memory. In his older age, he may not always catch your name but he rarely missed a hometown. Up until four months ago, he was able to tell me more about my senior year Nordic Choir tour to Russia than I could possibly recall. When I began my teaching career nearly twenty years back, I learned very quickly the power of recalling the simple facts about students that made them feel oh-so-special. Let's just say I'm still a work in progress in this area. Just before Christmas of 2015, Mr. Noble had a stroke that placed him in urgent care in the hospital. He struggled with his words, recalling words, putting words together and the spoken word. Several close friends took turns around the holidays staying by his bedside as he recovered. I visited him Christmas Eve in the afternoon and found him to be awake and alert, but frustrated with communication. I patiently listened, not able to understand most of what he was trying to express. I needed to run some errands, so I left and promised to return later that evening. When I did, I found him sleeping comfortably. I pulled up a chair and began checking email on my phone and finding contentment at just spending time with him that Christmas Eve. After I had been there for almost an hour, I heard this familiar voice clear as day speaking, "Weston Noble was born in 1922 in the town of Riceville, Iowa." I looked over at the bed and here was Mr. Noble deep in sleep reciting his biography as clear as day. Not a struggle for words, not a struggle for memory, not a struggle for clarity. He continued for about sixty seconds before waking himself. He looked at me, smiled, and tried with such effort to say "hello" or maybe "Merry Christmas" and the best he could do was stutter incoherently. It didn't matter to me. After that little miracle, I knew he'd once again recover.
Diligence. My final lesson from Mr. Noble is something I'd already learned from him many years ago. Yet, he reminded me of it just a few days before he passed away. I had gone to the nursing home to visit. I entered his room, he was dressed to the nines in his pressed pants and shirt and was enjoying some of the Christmas cards he'd recently received. He was about as clear and articulate as I had seen him in months and he greeted me with a smile and a request for a hug. We sat and chatted for a few minutes before the activities director walked in and said, "Weston, the Decorah High School Band will be playing Christmas Carols in the cafeteria shortly if you'd like to come." Mr. Noble looked at me and I could see conflict in his eyes. Our visit had only been a few short minutes, but I knew he wanted to go. He apologetically said to me, "I'm sorry to cut our visit short, but you and I have recruiting to do." I laughed, he didn't; he meant it. Recruitment for Luther did not stop when he retired; it didn't stop when he had health issues; and it certainly wasn't going to stop after his 94th birthday. We walked to the cafeteria; I sat next to him during the performance, and took mental notes as he and I shook the hands of as many of those high school musicians as we could. I wonder if those students knew how lucky they were that day.
Mr. Noble died two days later on December 21, 2016. I was at Hastings High School working that day. During the clinic, my phone (which was on vibrate) buzzed nonstop. After I finished with the clinic, the messages I received pieced the news together. I began reaching out to the many, many choral colleagues that I thought would want to know of his death from someone close to Mr. Noble rather than hearing it via social media. When I arrived home, both sad and emotionally exhausted, I noticed an unfamiliar Luther College phone number that had called approximately an hour after Mr. Noble died. They left no message but called several times. Assuming it was concerning Mr. Noble's death, I thought no more of it until the next morning when I did some basic sleuthing online only to discover it was the Dean's office. Shortly after that discovery, I got another call from the Dean offering me the position as the next conductor of the Nordic Choir.
Many have asked if Weston Noble, my teacher, my mentor and my friend knew that I was offered the position. My answer is always, "I wished I would have been able to tell him face to face." It always makes me feel better when people firmly respond with, "he knew." I'll choose to think Mr. Noble was just preparing his student for his next adventure in life.