My dear friend Paul Noonan passed away at home in Cotuit yesterday, Sept. 20. As the arrangements for his memorial come together I’ll share them here, along with my memories of the man. My condolences to his brother and sisters and his many friends.
Like most people I googled his name and found this fitting tribute to Paul in a cruising guide to the New England Coast. This was doubtlessly back in early 90s when he was driving the red jeep with the “Friends Don’t Let Friends Vote Republican” bumper sticker, clam rakes hanging out the sides because he was off to perform A Blessing of the Rakes in Waquoit Bay for his pal Chiefy. That was just before he totaled my Volkswagen Fox at the corner of School and Main — essentially Cotuit’s Time Square — when the “brakes went beserk.”
Rest in peace you old salt.
By Paul Fenn and W. Wallace Fenn in A Cruising Guide to New England Including the Hudson River
Tom Burgess’ Eulogy
I’m indebted to Marylou Noonan, Sally Noonan Ratchford, Janie Hayden Uyenoyama, Sally Hinkle, Alex Lowell, and David Churbuck for help in composing the obituary that formed the basis of this Eulogy to which I have added what Paul might have termed the “juicy bits.’
Paul David Noonan, 71
We are gathered here today to celebrate the life and to mourn the passing of a colorful Cape Cod character, Paul David Noonan. Both locals and tourists knew him as the eccentric and witty man behind the counter at the Cotuit Grocery during the 1990’s and later as the erudite advisor to those looking for old and interesting volumes at the Parnassus Bookstore in Yarmouthport, where he worked from 2001 to 2013. But perhaps a majority of us are here to say a final thank you to Paul because we owe him a debt of gratitude for some act of charity, gesture of support or bit of wise counseling that he offered us over the past half century.
He was born on January 19, 1943 in Marblehead, Mass. and was the son of Paul J. Noonan and Bernice (Lucey) Noonan, whom he cheerfully called Bernice “Banshee” for her continual and fruitless attempts to make him toe the line during a boozy and conflicted adolescence. He grew up in Marblehead and later in West Bridgewater, Mass., where he attended public schools. His family summered in Cotuit, and Cape Cod eventually became both his spiritual and physical home. I first met Paul at the Loop Beach when I was 13 or 14 and Paul occupied a permanent position at Janie Hayden’s, the Lifeguard’s, feet from dawn to dusk. He seldom if ever went in the water and seldom if ever stopped talking. A few sunny afternoons listening to him converse on the beach with the late Ray Smith was the equivalent of a course in liberal politics and theology 101. His predilection for dressing totally in black in his period of his teens attracted the bemused interest of our parents and foretold his life long interest in the clergy. He attended Tabor Academy and graduated from Cape Cod Preparatory School in Santuit, Mass. in 1962.
Paul started his career with books with the Harvard University Libraries where he worked first at Lamont Library and later at the Fogg Museum Library from 1964 to 1978. Here began his interest in local history.
Born and raised a Catholic, Paul was from the first a both a reformer and a deeply spiritual person, who looked both inside and outside the church for inspiration and fulfillment. While in Cambridge, he began working with needy, addicted, and homeless as a lay volunteer under the auspices of the Episcopalian Cowley Fathers, driven in part by his own work as a recovering alcoholic, which began in 1967, and then in the late 70’s as a member of the monastic community of Oblates of the Incarnate Word, where he donned the black monastic robe for which he had been modeling for the years of his youth. Paul’s decision to become sober was for him rather like Saint Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. It coalesced his energies outside of himself and impelled him to think of others, while he maintained a complete resistance to attempts to reform or change him by friends and family.
He entered the Order of the Most Holy Trinity following his departure from Cambridge. While in Baltimore, Maryland as a novitiate, he became deeply interested in the history of Afro-Americans in the tidewater area and later throughout the country. This became one of several life long passions. However, he found the tenets of the Catholic Church too confining and left the Order in 1979.
He returned to Cape Cod and settled in Provincetown, working off and on as a fisherman and attending St Mary’s of the Harbor, Episcopal Church. From his late teens he had been unabashed about his sexuality often declaring that he was “as gay as the Christmas goose.” Of course, he settled happily in Provincetown, where he once exulted to us that “even my laundryman is gay.” But Paul’s sexuality was very much subordinate to his thirst for social justice for all. He administered to the needy, recovering alcoholics and those suffering the then scourge of AIDS while going about his day to day life, which was punctuated with more than occasional fireworks of political activism. He served as Town Clerk of Provincetown for several years until he chose to depart to reside with his elderly father. This characterized his life from then on, in which the political was often public whereas the charitable was personal and often private.
Upon his return to Cotuit, he worked for the Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, where the work appealed to his interest in local history. It is rumored that this employment terminated when he attempted to unionize the employees – a testament to his equal desires to be a force of social justice and a very annoying gadfly to those in charge.
Soon after his return to the mid-Cape, he joined the Society of Friends, and eventually became Clerk of the Sandwich meeting. In this capacity he was instrumental in enlarging the meeting and opening the meetinghouse for year round worship. He became an authority on the early history of the Quakers on Cape Cod and lectured on this topic frequently. This proved to be perhaps the happiest time in his search for spiritual fulfillment as the patience and pacifism of the Quakers cooled the flames of 60’s radicalism and brought Paul to new methods of helping others.
During his sojourn in Provincetown, Paul had made close friends with some members of the Wampanoag Tribe. Upon returning to Cotuit, he became a vigorous ally of the tribe in the quest to achieve recognition of tribal status from the Federal Government. From this time onward, he counted many of the Wampanoag elders and their kin as close and dear friends, which is why we are here in this Meeting House today. In his office of clerk of the Sandwich Quaker Meeting, he spearheaded a joining of hands between the Cape Cod Friends and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. For his numerous works on their behalf, he was the first non-native-American to be awarded the Lew Gerwitz Spirit Award by the tribe. Until a month or so ago, he regularly visited elderly companions of his in the tribe to offer them his friendship, companionship and solace.
Paul’s reputation as a character was fueled by his acerbic wit and twinkly-eyed cynicism. When he left the Registry of Deeds, he worked first at the Kettle-Ho Restaurant in Cotuit and later as the regular holding down the cash register at the Cotuit Grocery. Here and later at the Parnassus he found a secular pulpit and a continually changing congregation. His love of banter and repartee earned him special mention in the Cruising Guide to the New England Coast. If I may quote: “In behind the Town Dock is the Cotuit Grocery, with a colorful employee named Paul Noonan in residence. The Grocery carries a nice selection of liquors and food and does deliver. Mr. Noonan, if you run into him, won’t service fiberglass boats or Republicans. So don’t call if it bothers you to be scrutinized for your choices. […] Take your chances with Mr. Noonan. It’s worth it.”
Many of the younger generation did take their chances and learned gradually that “What can I get you, you wretched little child?” was a term of jesting endearment from a softhearted curmudgeon. A life-long Democrat, he particularly enjoyed sending up members of the opposite party when they were across the counter. When a local Republican gentleman opened the grocery door one day and asked if his dog could enter the store, Paul replied that the dog was welcome but he had the gravest doubts about the possibility of entry for the dog’s master. Age seemed to bring about even a grudging camaraderie to this combat, and only last week he was chatting to my Republican brother – deemed “the archfiend” by Paul. My brother, of course, always knew Paul as “The Shining Path.”
During late 80’s and early 90’s, Paul continued his work informally with the needy and deprived and formally as an elected representative to the Barnstable Town Meeting and later as Town Councilor for Precinct 7, the village of Cotuit, in the years 1991 and 1992. He engaged himself continually with village and town organizations.
Beginning in 2001, as the indefatigable “clerk” of the Parnassus Bookstore, Paul returned to the books he loved. He was an excellent salesman and a learned commentator who earned mention in the Cape Cod Times and local guidebooks: “Visitors were happy just to wander through the stacks in search of whatever, perhaps hoping for some banter with the store’s idiosyncratic employee, Paul Noonan. Clearly a frustrated comedian in search of an audience, Paul’s quick one-liners and snappy retorts are equally as fun as finding a dusty tome among the chaos.”
A decade ago, Paul left the Sandwich Quaker Meeting during a period of dissension and turned back to the Episcopalian Church, attending St. Barnabas in Falmouth and St John’s in Sandwich. A great believer in the power of prayer, he lately sought and gained admission to a contemplative prayer order. I believe he saw himself in many ways as a latter day mendicant monk.
He continued his interest in Afro-American History and was called upon by the local chapter of the NAACP to research topics on their behalf. This led him to establish a relationship with the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans, with whom he corresponded frequently and to whom he was devoted. In the past year, he donated his collection of books on Afro-American History to the Zion Union Heritage Museum in Hyannis.
Paul was also devoted to his longtime housemate, Gary Gifford, a commercial shell fisherman in Cotuit, who died in 2010, with whom Paul worked from time to time. This relationship inspired Paul to revive the “blessing of the shell fishing fleet” in the Three Bays and to lobby hard for the interests of shell fishermen in the town of Barnstable.
There are a lot of us here who particularly remember Paul as the foremost unofficial representative of the Lord God on Cape God, for whom Paul often donned the very black robe that hung in his closet and married, buried and baptized those who counted him as a friend, an advisor and a counselor and their offspring. I know of this first hand as Paul married our daughter, and buried my son and my son-in-law within the space of three months. I remember very little of those black days except that Paul’s reassurance somehow led me to believe that neither I nor the world had gone mad.
A very sound appreciation of Paul in the late ‘90’s was lately given to me by Christina Kelley.
“Paul Noonan revels in his self-inflicted image of rebel and non-conformist. A true radical, he always finds some injustice to lash at. Mellower now (the once-brown beard is white) than some years ago, his has become a more gentle radicalism. Don’t expect to find Paul tossing rocks that might hurt people at the barricades. His criticism is more of ideologies and collective actions, less of individual people. He will allege and skewer the abuse of police power, then say he finds it an honor to live in the same village as an Officer […]. He has an abiding passion for social justice, but he exercises it within the group of most patient and tolerant people, the Quakers. He embraced their teaching after years in the church of those of his ancestors who were Irish. And, yes indeed, as Brother Paul David during part of the 1970s, he wore a friar’s black robe with a blue cord or cincture, a member of the monastic community of Oblates of the Incarnate Word, in Cambridge.”
“You can say - and this is a compliment – that for the 32 years of his uninterrupted sobriety, Paul Noonan has been drunk on life. It exhilarates, turns him on. His laughter rings in large rooms. A Well-flavored Life.”
It is said de mortuis nil nisi bonum, that one should not speak ill of the dead, but no one is entirely without failings – and I would have to say that, when pressed or lectured by well meaning friends and family on matters of his own health, his finances, and lately his eclectic mode of attire, Paul developed what I might term a tangential relationship with the truth. This often created stormy relationships particularly with us miss-guided well-wishers. And, he treated his “motorcars” abominably.
Lately, He suffered more and more as time went on from bouts of anxiety, depression and even agoraphobia – perhaps as he intimated his own demise. That said, we all remember that he did draw his sword enter the battle with alcoholism from which he emerged victorious. Now, we mourn that late in life he lacked the energy and strength to do the same against tobacco with the lamentable result that we are here today far earlier than we should have been.
In sum, all of us here took a chance on Mr. Noonan and it was worth it. It is his manifold virtues have brought us here, and we all seek to emulate them. We can be firm in our knowledge that Paul’s virtues in the scales of life far, far outweighed his failings, and we can be confident that in the final judgment he has been deemed a valiant Christian Soldier, who, like the Saints who so nobly fought of old, has finally won his cross of gold.
God rest Paul David Noonan. Amen.
Friday, September 26, 2014
Thomas Knight Burgess