Weston H. Noble, 1922-2016
Weston Noble, founder of the Luther College Nordic Choir and its conductor for more than fifty years, and a member of Chicago Chorale’s Board of Advisors, died yesterday, at the age of ninety-four. The engine that could, finally couldn’t, any more. He lived a life of such commitment and productivity, that he left most of his colleagues panting in his dust; his legacy is a choral music culture, at Luther and throughout the upper midwest, that astounds with its depth and richness. But he was far more than a masterful choral conductor. I first met Weston when he conducted the Minnesota All-State Choir, when I was seventeen years old. All-State was a week-long camp, held at Bemidji State College; in addition to lots of rehearsal time, we had opportunity to get to know other participants. Weston was already a legend, back then, especially in my family—numerous relatives had attended Luther College, and had participated in his bands and choirs; and he rented a room from my grandmother’s cousin, Magdalene Preus, who lived right on campus-- so we felt he was “ours.” I felt a special attachment to him from the beginning. At that point I had little idea about college or career, no particular plans or desires, past a general conviction that I ought to go somewhere-- this week-long experience tipped me toward Weston and Luther; it was the only school to which I applied. I did not plan to major in music, or even to audition for choirs; I was far more interested in being in plays. But Weston contacted me when I reached campus, and pulled me into his orbit—he was persistent and detail-oriented, and amazingly single-minded. He lived to build his program, and cast a very wide net.
First years did not sing under Weston; he ran auditions, but placed freshmen in the Chapel Choir, where they learned the ropes under another conductor. Magdalene frequently served Sunday dinner to her relatives who were attending the college—a tableful, most of the time—and Weston would be present, as well. So I became more acquainted with him, personally, than my first-year peers; and toward the end of that year, it was decided that I would move into their house the following year, and share their life. It was strange and lonely to leave my fellow-students behind in the dorm; but Weston, Magdalene, and I bonded over breakfast, over late-night news, over laundry, over raking leaves and shoveling the walk, a bond which grew into two of the most important relationships in my life. He was a lonely man, and turned out to be glad for my company; I frequently went out to lunch or dinner with him, took walks with him in the beautiful Decorah countryside, ran errands for him. I often drove him (in his enormous Chrysler Imperial) to the airport, or to local high school choral festivals where I could observe him at work; and to concerts of touring ensembles, where he would introduce me to the major conductors of that time—Howard Swan, Robert Shaw, Roger Wagner, Gregg Smith, Norman Luboff. I would listen to their conversation, and then talk about what I had heard, on the ride home.
I had financial trouble throughout college. I frequently could not pay my tuition bills, could not afford books or private lessons; at one point I did not even have a winter coat. Weston hired me to work in the Music Department office; he found donors to cover my lessons; he even found another faculty member to give me a coat. And my tuition shortfalls would mysteriously disappear. I was not the best student, the top singer, the hardest worker—I was tiresome, self-absorbed, difficult to deal with. I would stumble into the house long after he and Magdalene had gone to bed, smelling like the Pub (that included cigarette and pot smoke, in those days), often weeping with despair; but he never held back in his care and concern for me, and always believed I would turn out fine. He was my Rock of Gibraltar; he had my back.
The evening after college graduation Weston and I took a walk, and he asked-- what will you do now? I answered, maybe become a pastor, or an elementary school music teacher; maybe I’d go hitch-hiking. I had no plans-- I knew too little, and was too afraid to imagine. Weston decided I needed a kick in the rear, and convened a meeting of teachers who had taken an interest in me, to ask their advice. One had friends in the English Department at The University of Chicago, and was about to visit them; he was charged with finding me a place at that school, anything at all to get me into a new, challenging environment. It worked. Weston often told me in later years that he would not have enjoyed U of C, or the city, himself; but he knew what I needed, and he supported me unstintingly through the years of growth and transition that followed.
I have been surprised at the number of people who have stories like mine, about Weston —he was so energetic, had so much room in his heart, and so many plans. I have thought I knew him well—but realize there was much more to know, and to treasure. He was a giant. I’m grateful for the bit of him that is mine.