Obituary: Noel Edwin Harris, 1918-2017

Noel Edwin Harris

Noel Edwin Harris was a sweet man. A kind man. An honorable man. He was a devoted husband, a supportive father, a steadfast friend, an engaged citizen, and a lifelong activist for human rights, justice, and peace.

Noel was born on December 6, 1918, in Inglenook, California, a tiny community in Mendocino County just north of Fort Bragg. He was the fifth and youngest child of Thomas Jefferson and Edith Mayzel (Wood) Harris. His siblings were Kathryn Laura (Hadley), John Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson, and James Henry, all of whom predeceased him. Noel was a third generation Californian through his maternal grandmother, Laura Webb. His mother’s parents, James Ervin and Laura Webb Wood, were early settlers near Garberville in southern Humboldt County. They had eighteen children, and Noel had more than 60 first cousins! He and his favorite cousin, Myrtle (Barnes Baxter), were the last two remaining before her death in December 2014.

Noel’s family moved to Fields Landing in 1922, and he spent his boyhood there and in Eureka. He attended Field School, Jefferson Grammar School, Eureka Junior High, and Eureka Senior High, where he graduated with honors in 1936. Though he came from a “hunting and fishing” family, Noel was cut from a different cloth. Shy and thoughtful, he loved reading – books, magazines, newspapers, anything he could get his hands on. He used to speed read the front page of people’s papers when he delivered milk to their porches as a boy (until he got caught in the act).

An early interest of Noel’s was history, which started him thinking about the world  politically. When he was a teenager, one of his close friends was Ensi Wirta, whose parents were radical Finns. Spending time with this family influenced Noel’s outlook on both local and international politics. In 1935, when he was 16, there was a general strike of lumber workers in the Pacific Northwest – demanding better pay, a shorter work week (less than 60 hours!), and the right to collective bargaining. At the Holmes-Eureka Mill (site of today’s Bayshore Mall) three strikers were shot and killed by police, and many others were wounded. This dramatic event strengthened Noel’s resolve to protect and defend the rights of all workers, and he devoted the majority of his working life to the trade union movement: first as a rank and file worker (Pacific Lumber, Holmes-Eureka, California Barrel, Malarkey & Malarkey, Simpson Plywood), later as a shop steward, and finally as Business Agent for Plywood Workers Local 2931, a job he held from March 1965 through January 1981 when he retired. Noel was reelected seven times, though he never campaigned for votes; he believed the quality of his representation had to speak for itself.

Noel’s non-lumber employment included a summer job at the San Francisco World’s Fair in 1939, a season of commercial salmon fishing with his father in 1946, and a spring and summer working at the Fields Landing Whaling Station in 1940. Decades later, he described that experience in a book he co-wrote with his good friend Humboldt State University librarian Lesa Coleman. The Town that Had Enough, A History of Fields Landing and Its Whaling Station was published by Noyo Hill House in 2014, making Noel a first-time author at age 95.

Though a pacifist by nature, Noel was also a resolute anti-fascist. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and was sent to study radio technology at Texas A&M. Because of his math skills, Noel was offered a job to stay on teaching recruits, but he opted for a more active role in fighting fascism. From the summer of 1942 until the end of the war in 1945, he served as a radio technician first class aboard the USS Cowpens, the first US aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, the first to enter Tokyo Bay at the war’s end, and the first to have its planes land on Japanese soil. Noel was never one to tell war stories, but in 1999, a friend named Sandra Warshaw helped him to locate some of his old shipmates via email. They swapped detailed memories of those epic days – funny, frightening, and mundane – and the resulting correspondence fills a large three-ring binder with valuable historical material.

In 1940 Noel married Myrtle Loft, a fellow progressive whose father was a Lutheran minister in Ferndale. Their son, John Stephen, was born in November 1941, and soon afterward Noel left for the war. Like many wartime couples, their marriage didn’t survive, and in 1945, 4-year-old Steve moved to Fields Landing to live with his father and grandparents.

In August 1946, Noel met Charis Wilson, who was in Eureka working on a book about northern California. She was interested in a local strike that Noel was helping to organize, and a fellow activist introduced them. They were married in Reno, Nevada, on December 14, the day after Charis was granted a divorce from her first husband, photographer Edward Weston. Noel and Charis had two daughters, Anita Kathryn in January 1948, and Rachel Fern in October 1950. They also raised Steve until he went to live with his mother at age 11. Noel and Charis were founding members of the local chapter of the NAACP and were also early members of the Humboldt Unitarian Fellowship. They held many views in common, but their personalities were mismatched, and though they stayed together for twenty years and remained friends for the rest of their lives, by the late 1950s their marriage was essentially over.

In 1960 Noel met the love of his life, Ina Lipman Bradford. The path ahead wasn’t clear, and they spent many years trying to find a way to be together that wouldn’t cause people harm. On December 27, 1967, Noel and Ina were married, and over the course of the next 50 years, they proved that true love prevails. And inspires. And ultimately generates more love in ever-widening circles.

In 1967 Noel suffered the unbearable tragedy of losing his first two children. Stephen died in April when his Navy plane went down off the coast of Japan, and five months later, on a break after two years at Reed College, Anita was murdered while traveling in Scotland. That Noel was able to survive these losses without becoming bitter or losing his faith in humanity is a testament to his character and to the boundless support he received from Ina. Noel, Ina, and Charis all believed that the only response to such horror was to insist on love, and to fight against the pathology that leads to violence and war. Healing and moving on with life doesn’t mean forgetting. At the age of 93 Noel told Rachel, “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Steve and Anita.”

In spite of the pain, Noel’s marriage to Ina marked the beginning of the best and happiest years of his life. Their five decades of love and teamwork allowed him to become all he was capable of – as a husband, a father, a labor organizer, a peace activist, a scholar, a mentor, a friend, and a human being.

Ina went to work with Noel at the union office soon after they were married, and when the Local could no longer afford to pay her, she continued working for free until Noel retired. They attended innumerable labor conventions and symposiums, stood together on picket lines, published a labor newspaper – always fighting for workers’ rights, and strategizing to come up with more effective ways to support the broader labor movement.

When Noel retired in January of 1981, he and Ina enrolled in the “Over Sixties Program” at Humboldt State University. Noel had attended Humboldt before the war, and he finished his studies on the GI Bill, graduating as a history major in 1949. At 62, for $3.00 per semester, he was able to fully indulge in the pleasures of the mind. For more than a decade he and Ina attended classes several days a week, and Noel didn’t just audit, he committed to writing all the papers and taking every exam. His contributions to class discussions, based on first person recollections of history, were especially valued by his professors. Noel had lived through the presidencies of Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, and the stories he told about the personalities, deeds and misdeeds of our country’s leaders fascinated his fellow students. Noel and Ina also attended a number of Elder Hostels, including one in Hawaii and one in Washington D.C., where they spent election night of 1992 in a youth hostel dorm, celebrating the news that twelve years of Republican administrations had come to an end with the election of President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

Noel and Ina. Photo by Amanda Devons

During his time at Humboldt State, Noel helped organize a Humboldt Labor History Project to protect and preserve the legacy of the timber unions of the area, and the HSU library became the repository of the first labor history archive on the North Coast. In 1989 the Project received a substantial grant, which was used to archive a wealth of historical material, including Noel’s personal collection of papers relating to the labor history of Humboldt County from 1940 through 1990. Some of Noel’s other post-retirement activities included volunteering as a docent in the Humboldt Room of the County Library and serving on the board of the ACLU. Together he and Ina and their friend Bill Landis hosted a series of potluck dinners called “Decades Revisited.” A group of young friends gathered to eat, listen to old music, and hear personal stories and ask questions about the political and cultural events of the 20th century, one decade at a time.


Noel and Ina. Photo by Amanda Devons

Noel and Ina traveled overseas a number of times, always visiting Finland where Ina’s daughter Gail lived with her sons Lauri and Esko. They made many trips to southern California to see Noel’s brothers, John and Tom, and their wives, as well as Ina’s three siblings, Bob, Norma, and Marilyn, and their families; to Las Vegas and San Clemente to spend time with Ina’s son Niels, his wife Gloria, and their children Nicole and Leif; to New York City and later to Iowa to visit Ina’s younger daughter Leigh, her husband Nick, and their son Cole; and to Santa Cruz, California to get together with Noel’s daughter Rachel, her partner Bruce, his daughter Saraí, their close friend Joe Stroud, and Noel’s former wife Charis.

Noel and Ina. Photo by Amanda Devons

Though they downplayed the recognition, Noel and Ina were honored on several occasions for their unswerving commitment to social progress, including an award from the Southwest Labor Studies Association in August 1992 “in recognition of their many contributions to the cause of labor;” the annual Peace and Justice Award from the Redwood Peace and Justice Center in November 2007 “for their grassroots activism and long-time dedication and invaluable contributions to causes of Peace and Social Justice in the northern Humboldt County community and beyond;” and in January 2016, individual Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Eureka branch of the NAACP.

In August 2007 Noel had a moderate stroke, but he recovered quickly and well, partly due to his own determination and optimistic spirit. He received excellent medical care from Dr. Bill Hunter and the staff at the Open Door Community Health Clinic, outstanding nursing and therapy from Mad River Home Health Services, special attention from “local daughter” and nurse Victoria Onstine, and “concierge care” from close family friend Dr. Corinne Frugoni. And, of course, around-the-clock dedicated love and support from Ina.

Within a year, however, Noel began to show signs of memory loss, and he was ultimately diagnosed with multi-infarct dementia. Thanks again to Noel and Ina’s teamwork, along with endless support from Victoria and their circle of friends, what could have been a devastating diagnosis was taken in stride and dealt with practically. Fortunately, only Noel’s short-term memory was affected. He remembered his past, his friends and family, the presidents of the United States in order, as well as some of the vice presidents, principal dates from the Russian Revolution, key figures in the Watergate scandal, and almost anything else you might ask him about. He just sometimes couldn’t remember what day it was, where he’d been, who had come to visit, what he’d eaten for lunch, or even whether he’d had lunch. This came in handy when he couldn’t recall having had ice cream for dessert and therefore felt entitled to a second helping.

For the last ten years of his life, Noel’s beautiful spirit, his concern for the planet and its people, his playful sense of humor, his unfailing politeness and sweetness always stayed with him. As he began to slow down, though, Ina inevitably took on more caregiving responsibilities. So it was a great benefit to both of them when Noel began to attend Mad River Adult Day Health Care two days a week in early 2013. It provided him with much-needed exercise and social stimulation, and it gave her a chance to run errands, catch up on projects, visit with friends, and occasionally even rest. Noel made many special friends at Mad River among both clients and staff, and he was always in great demand as a dance partner! Staff members gave him a San Francisco 49ers bear he named Oscar that slept by his pillow at night, and they sent him a card every month when he was no longer able to attend. Adult Day staff friends, Virginia and Misako, came to Noel’s amazing celebration of life party in May 2016, which was attended by more than 60 people.

Noel retained his essential self even during the last fifteen months of his life when he was housebound and largely bedbound. Robbed of a huge measure of his autonomy and a certain amount of his dignity, he rarely complained and was always a gentleman and a gentle man. He thanked his wonderful caregivers for fixing him delicious meals, for cleaning and bathing him, for adjusting him in bed; he thanked his speech, occupational, and physical therapists for putting him through his paces; he even thanked the nurses from Mad River Home Health and Hospice for taking his vital signs. Though Noel seldom remembered “new” people’s names (that is, people he met after his stroke), he was always happy to see a familiar face, as well as faces of people he was meeting for the first time. Even if he was feeling tired, he would rise to the occasion when people came to visit, joining them in conversation and often surprising them with his sly wit. Noel and Ina’s romance simply adapted to circumstance: every evening her twin bed was slid into place next to his hospital bed (with the rails dropped down), so they could sleep through the night holding hands.

Rachel and Bruce had arrived in Eureka for a visit the night before Noel was hospitalized with the illness that left him too weak to stand. Rachel stayed six days with Noel at St. Joseph’s Hospital and then moved back into her childhood home on Pine Street in order to help with his ongoing care. It was to be a year of deep connection, profound intimacy, shared memories, much playfulness, and unconditional love. Noel was so happy to have his “Rachelini” home again, and Rachel was grateful to Ina for sharing her home and her heart so they could all be together.

After becoming bedbound, Noel discovered new pastimes: listening to his favorite music on an iPod and YouTube (sometimes singing along) and watching videos and documentaries on a laptop computer on his tray table. His viewing attention span was long, and his taste was eclectic: biographies of Paul Robeson, Harry Bridges, Rasputin, Pete Seeger, and Josephine Baker, as well as numerous presidents and scientists; the history of the Wobblies; the building of the Brooklyn Bridge; Orson Welles, William Randolph Hearst and the battle over Citizen Kane; various nature specials; Mr. Bean; funny animal videos; and even a fascinating documentary on the evolution of the toilet over the past 3000 years.

Noel also followed the crazy roller coaster of politics during the last election cycle, voting first for Bernie Sanders and then for Hillary Clinton. The one thing he couldn’t wrap his head around was the election’s outcome. In the months that followed, he continued to ask who had won, and he’d shake his head in disgust and disbelief when he was told. An eternal optimist, he simply couldn’t fathom that such a dreadful person had been elected. Let’s hope Noel and Ina’s longtime faith in the future proves to be well-founded!

The synergy of Noel and Ina’s remarkable fifty-year partnership has reaped benefits for the world beyond their immediate circle of family and friends, beyond the geographical boundaries of city, county, state, and country. Together they have planted seeds of justice, courage, compassion, integrity, humor, hope, and love which will keep on growing, flowering, and reseeding themselves for many years to come. Now it’s up to us – with Noel and Ina as role models – to unite, to organize, to educate ourselves, to resist all forms of cruelty, racism, oppression, greed, and destruction, and to insist on and work to realize all that is good and fair and healthy for life on our planet.

Noel died peacefully on the morning of July 20. In the end, he didn’t make it to 100, but 98-and-a-half well-lived years was a mighty good run!

Noel was adored by such a huge host of family and friends that it’s impossible to name everyone. He is survived by his beloved family: wife and soulmate Ina Lipman Harris; daughter Rachel Fern Harris (& Bruce Hobson); Ina’s children Niels (& Gloria) Pearson, Gail Pearson, and Leigh Bradford; grandchildren Nicole (& Ryan Fink) and Leif Pearson, Lauri and Esko (& Ida) Gardner, Cole Bradford-Hotek, and Saraí Hobson Pliego; great-grandchildren Sointu Talvikki Marigold Gardner and Weston Alexander Fink; sisters-in-law Norma Coony and Betty Lipman; 2nd cousin Chuck Baxter (cousin Myrtle’s son) & Bob Hawkins; nieces Dana Harris Crocker, Sharon Hadley, Ruth Anne Harris, Ellen (& Grant) Baker, and Brenda (& Rob) Tomaras; nephew Eric (& Florence) Gossett; Ina’s cousin Dan (& Marie) Issacson; great-nephews Nathan Hadley (who has provided wonderful help and companionship for the past 5 months), Noel Hadley, J.J. & Stephen Harris, great-niece Hannah Hadley; and great-great-nephew Jasper Harris.


Just as important is Noel’s bountiful extended family – Victoria Onstine, her children Molly and Justin Onstine, grandchild Harrison Dillinger Onstine, and Jayne McNeilly; Kris & John Onstine and their daughter Alison; Frank Onstine; Corrine Frugoni; Lesa Coleman; Barbara Kaplan & Dave Woodson and their daughter Jenny; Paul Kaplan; Maggie & Mark Shaffer; Jerryl Lyn Rubin & Amanda Devons; Edie & Don Butler; Sharon & Michael Fennell and Troy Williams; longtime neighbors Betty Lutje and Tom Cave; Monda Hall; Arlene Hartin; Don Murphy; Dan Cornford; Sylvia & Russ Bartley of Noyo Hill House; Terra Freedman; Kathleen Baker; Sandra Warshaw; Pisila & Nathan Smith and their daughter Elizabeth; John & Carol Lyons and their son Issac; Nezzie Wade; Celeste & Chip Sharpe; Diana & Wally Cooper; Shirley & A.V. Powell; Nancy Mohney; Mary Dunn; Reevee Rimson; Darylla Hager & Rick Lermo; Neena & Justin Olson; Beverly & Louie Sousa; Frances & Troy Nicolini; Amy & Cameron Black; Abigail Pyeatt; Ashley Mielkie; Junie & Ted Speier; Peter Brant; Bruce Roessler & Maya; Gordie Skaggs; Reese; Olenda Finley and her daughter Corley; Jan Werner; Colette & Candace Washington (daughters of the late Charles Washington, one of Noel’s best friends); Bill Rohlfs (Noel’s shipmate from the USS Cowpens); Joe Stroud, Ellen Scott, Lori Perry & Dennis Tamura in Santa Cruz; Helen McKinley in Oakland; Bob O’Dell & David Glesson in London; and the not-so-old “old gang” of peace activists Willa Moore, Elizabeth (Bunny) Westbrook, Judy Coyle, Charlie Vader, Terry Wright, and Sue, Gus & Nicholas Deshais – along with many other friends, old and new. There is no way to thank them all for the richness, pleasure, interest, and just plain fun they added to Noel’s life!

Of enormous assistance this past year and a half have been the whole team from Hospice, especially Virginia, Erin, Kaia, Aisha, Peg, Robby, Andre, and Dr. John Nelson; Dr. Bill Hunter and Dulcie from the Open Door Clinic; the nurses and therapists from Mad River Home Health, especially Michelle, Julie, Peggy, Reed, Nancy, Carrie, Maryah and Sherry; speech therapists Rebecca and Susan; Fitzgerald, Erin, Melissa, and Dr. Nelson (wearing his other hat) from the VA Home Based Primary Care Program; and finally, Noel’s beautiful, longtime, dedicated caregivers par excellence – Michael Bien, Lorraine Whelihan, and Char Melugin. We could never have done it without you!

A memorial celebration of Noel’s life will be held on Friday, October 20, at 2 pm at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 24 Fellowship Way in Bayside, California.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Friends of the Noel E. Harris Archive Fund through the Humboldt Area Foundation at 363 Indianola Rd., Bayside, CA 95524 or to Veterans for Peace Chapter 56 at PO Box 532, Bayside, CA 95524.

We are also asking people for recollections of Noel to include in his archive and possibly to use at his memorial. If there is anything you would like to contribute (thoughts about Noel, a specific memory or story from any time in his life), please send it by mail to Ina Harris at 3327 Pine St. Eureka, CA 95503 or by email to Rachel Harris at [email protected] Thank you.


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