TRUE STORIES — The life and legacy of Don Noland

J.T. Knoll
J.T. Knoll

We gathered at St. Barbara’s in Chicopee last Friday for the funeral of Don Noland who died on Saturday, July 3rd. As Jerry Lomshek sang “Amazing Grace,” members of his family, one by one, brought mementos forward and placed them on a table at the front of the altar.

The purpose of our gathering was twofold — to mourn and honor his life and legacy and bring ourselves face to face with the life we will live without him. 

At one point, his granddaughters and grandson-in-law shared scripture readings. A line from one was the underlying theme of the entire service. From Matthew: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

Don, who grew up in Chanute, got a degree in Political Science and History from Pittsburg State University and a Juris Doctorate from Washburn School of Law, following which he returned to Pittsburg and a private law practice in 1976.

He was appointed as Crawford County 11th Judicial District Court Judge in 1991 by Governor Joan Finney and served until his retirement in 2012.

Although a confirmed Democrat, Judge Noland was a passionate advocate for maintaining a judiciary that is independent and free from political influence.

He was an avid reader, loved bass fishing, motorcycles, and astronomy. He played softball until turning 50, enjoyed movies, and his almost daily trips to John’s Sports Center for conversation and coffee. Following retirement, he volunteered for Hospice Compassus and delivered Meals on Wheels.

Don was a high achiever. His first dream, according to his younger sister, Denise, was to be a jet pilot, but when he found out you couldn’t fly a jet if you were colorblind, he switched to lawyer — and was never deterred from that dream until he attained it.

Denise also told me he loved sports – was a wrestler, football player and a baseball pitcher. Made her be the catcher so he could practice…but they didn’t have a catcher’s mitt. He could throw very hard. When Denise protested that she was scared, Don told her, “If you don’t catch that ball it’s gonna’ kill you!” So mom tried – hurt her hand too much. Dad tried – hurt his hand too much.

Younger brother Dave told me that he could catch him. In fact, it was something of an honor to catch for his older brother, Donny. Dave told me he always wanted to be like him — in sports, school, Student Council President, but he was hard act to follow. But Dave did learn to drive a three-on-the-tree stick shift before him and tried to teach brother "Donny" on their old Studebaker. When Dave started laughing at his inability to master it one day in the driveway, Donny exploded with anger and frustration. Dave took off running to escape Donny’s wrath.

Getting back to playing ball, here’s a story that speaks to his sense of whimsy. Fellow lawyer, Bob Tomassi, told me Don was "enamored" with slow pitch softball. Once, when he learned the lawyer team would be playing in the first game of the season, to celebrate "opening day," he lined the lawyer team and the opposing team along the first and third base lines before the game and had Bob play the star spangled banner – on kazoo!

As for his prowess as an attorney and judge, and his overall personality, it was captured wonderfully in a letter of remembrance written by his long time colleague and friend, Steve Angermayer. 

“On the bench he was all business,” Angermayer wrote. “Outside of court, he was one of the boys who called me by my last name — Angermayer. We never thought much of it. Likewise, most of us called him Noland — like we did in our younger, sports playing days.

“When you sit in a courtroom you see the variety of humans that God put on the earth.  Many were in desperate straits, but he was always compassionate and listened to their story — even though he had heard the speaker previously give a well-worn excuse.  He would listen intently and then say, ‘Out of an abundance of caution I am not going to release you to house arrest with your grandmother, because you have been charged with robbery and murder.’ Often the recipient would thank him.”

Indeed, Don’s wife, Theresa, showed me an email from a man — with a substance abuse issue — thanking him for sentencing him to county jail in 2005. Said he needed that "time out" to think about his life. (Of course Don responded and there ensued an exchange of several emails between them.)

Quoting further from Steve Angermayer’s letter, “He took new attorneys under his wing. He would overlook our repeated faults in the courtroom. He expressed friendship to strangers. He greeted you with a smile.”

To this point, I got a call from Angela Meyer who told me how, in middle school, my wife, as her gifted teacher, arranged for her to shadow him and observe him in court. How he would initiate discussion with her afterward about what she saw, heard, learned. When she returned to Pittsburg after law school Don suggested she get on the court appointed list. And before what judge did she appear in her very first court case? The Honorable Don Noland.

Angermayer also mentioned the annual 3rd of July party and fireworks display for family and friends hosted by Don and Theresa next to the pond at their place — with Don as emcee on the megaphone announcing the name of each firework as well as giving and asking for ratings. To tease his little brother, he called the duds a "Dave."

Angermayer professed that Don showed Biblical love — agape love — in that he unconditionally loved those with whom he came into contact. His remembrance ends with, “I am blessed by the qualities that you lived and gave to others. Your memory is etched on my soul.”

Reflecting on Don’s life and legacy brought to mind, for me, a statement by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the woman who changed the way people look at dying and pioneered hospice and palliative care.

“When you make your transition,” Kubler-Ross wrote, “you are asked two things basically: How much love you have been able to give and receive, and how much service you have rendered. And you will know every consequence of every deed, every thought, and every word you have ever uttered. And, symbolically speaking, going through hell will be when you see how many chances you have missed. But … you will also see how a nice act of kindness has touched hundreds of lives that you’re totally unaware of.”

After a short graveside service we all gathered at The Lodge west of Pittsburg for classic Southeast Kansas post funeral fare: fried chicken, rigatoni and sausage.

As the luncheon was ending, Don’s wife, Theresa, and daughter, Janna, addressed the gathering, thanking them for all their prayers and asking that we remember and honor Don in doing an act of kindness for someone.

Also in something he told them as he lay dying, “We’re all in this together.”

J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 620-704-1309 or jtknoll@swbell.net