Happy birthday, Joe!

Colourful Carbonear businessman, civic leader, turns 90 years-of-age

Tobias Romaniuk tobias.romaniuk@gmail.com
Published on December 14, 2012
Joe Noel of Carbonear turned 90 last week. He is pictured here at his office.
Photo by Tobias Romaniuk/Special to The Compass

Editor's note: The following article was published in the Dec. 11, 2012 print edition of The Compass.

Joe Noel is standing at the window of Noel Motors in Carbonear, wearing an argyle sweater over a white shirt, a red tie nestled under the collar. He looks out across the street to a small white house with a green roof, and tells of how that was the only other building in the area when they built the shop back in '53.

It was all trees, big ones, he says, sweeping an arm out to his side to include everything behind the shop. They cleared some of it, and a few years later he built the house he still lives in across the street.

He recalls his father telling him he'd starve if he built over on the hill, so far away from town. But he did it anyway, telling his father that in 50 years this would be downtown.

Now, some 60 years later, there's a large hospital next to the shop, and a neighbourhood has grown around him.

He still lives in that house with his wife, and last weekend celebrated his 90th birthday in what was planned to be a three-day affair. He told his wife that he didn't want anything special for his birthday, but she had already invited members of the Kinsmen Club, which he helped start decades ago.

Still contributing

There's a long list of clubs and memberships Noel either helped start or was a contributing member of, and many of those organizations have given him certificates that now hang on his office wall at Noel Motors. And that office isn't just for show. Noel still works, driven by a need to be a contributing member of society.

Asked when he might retire, he says the day after they bury him.

He's been the subject of many interviews, is mentioned in a "who's who and why" book published in 1981, and has a two-page write-up about himself ready to slide across the desk.

Seated behind his desk, hands folded in front of him, he says "so what do you want to know?"

What is it that makes this man so interesting that people would want to repeatedly interview him? Well, he's sharp, insightful, and knows how to string out a good yarn.

Unlike many others his age, he said, he still has his memory, and it stretches back to 1926, when he was four years old.

Those were hard times in Flatrock - the one next to Carbonear, not the one near St. John's - and many people were hungry.

He remembers beggars coming to the door, and his mother giving them whatever food they had to spare. His family, the eight children and his parents, were lucky, since his father was working in Boston and could send home some money.

But soon he, too, returned, and took to fishing. Potatoes and fish were often what those looking for food were given.

Hard times

He remembers the Carbonear riots of 1936, and being told by his mother to stay in the yard. He didn't.

"I wanted to see the mounted police" he said, so he went into town.

They were hard times, and the men were just as hard, dragging an MHA from the train when he came to town, and almost killing him by throwing him off the wharf.

That memory didn't deter him from entering politics, though.

He's a proud Tory, and fought against Confederation. Not because he was against it, but because he felt Newfoundland was going to Ottawa as beggars, when they should have gone as equals, he said. And because he didn't like Joey Smallwood; still doesn't, and he has many adjectives, none complimentary, to describe the first premier.

Noel, being a man of action, ran against Smallwood twice in the 1960s, the first time in '66. Smallwood, who was either incredibly popular or a dictator, depending on who you ask (Noel chooses dictator) was only worried about his government possibly losing five seats, one of which was in Carbonear.

He would win that seat, and all but three other seats that election, but it was not a clean fight, as Noel tells it. That election, says Noel, is the reason the main road through Carbonear doesn't pass by Noel Motors.

Physically attacked

One day a government man came to visit Noel, and told him to withdraw from the election, or else he would walk barefoot and poverty stricken through the streets once again.

"Joey Smallwood could never take the shoes from my feet," he says. He ran, nearly in more ways than one.

In those days, running for politics could result in running for safety.

"I was assaulted physically, and the PA system ripped off my car," he said, relating the story of how a businessman attacked him first verbally then physically.

"Some of my best friends betrayed me on that election," he said, repeating it slower, a note of what could be sadness creeping into his voice before continuing with the story.

He would later run for leadership of the Conservative party, but not with a goal of eventually beating Smallwood. This time, it was to add some entertainment to what he saw as an otherwise dull event.

He had thrown his name in with no intention of winning, and knowing full well that his good friend Frank Moores would be the one to win the party leadership, which he did.

"I was only in it for the game, see," he said, and the publicity was good, too.

Before the people went to the polls, they were treated to a show. Noel laughs, remembering that day over 40 years ago, before telling the story.

Each candidate was given 15 minutes on live television - he took 17 - to speak their piece. Noel began with a quote. From Shakespeare.

"I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts, for I am as you know me all a plain blunt man," he recites, laughing as he retells the story. The Telegram, he said, would report it as the best speech of the night in their coverage the next day.

Business interests

He would later be the subject of a CBC Land and Sea episode, this time for his Turkey farm, which is still operating. He also, with his son, opened a convenience store, and later a construction business.

You need to diversify to be successful, he said, explaining the reasoning behind his various businesses.

Between the multiple business ventures and runs at provincial politics, he also found the time to serve on municipal council.

The blue nameplate, inscribed "J. Noel, councillor, 1973-1981" sitting on his desk facing the door is a reminder to his civic service. And around his office are many other reminders of his achievements, like bringing the first taxi service to Carbonear, a memory held in the photo of a station wagon.

But the best thing he ever did, the thing that makes him happiest, was finding his wife, the mother of his two children, he said.

And there's a photo of her, with his two children, framed on the wall of his office a few feet away from his father, in his First World War navy uniform.

But there's one thing that isn't in his office. It's the movie projector he used to show films and newsreels for free to people in town during the Second World War. It disappeared one day, and he never did find out where it went.

"It's one of the great mysteries of my life," he said.

What the other mysteries may be is a question that goes unasked. Perhaps that's a story for another day.




About Joe Noel

• Birthday - Dec. 6, 1922

• Birthplace - Freshwater, Carbonear

• Resides - Carbonear

• Occupation - businessman

• Family - seven siblings, two children, two grandchildren

• Businesses - Noel Motors and Transit, Noel's Turkey Farm, Noel's Convenience Store, and a construction company. He still works and maintains an office at Noel Motors.

• Political history - A "staunch Tory," he ran for provincial office twice in the 1960s, and also served on the Carbonear town council from 1973-1981.

• Community involvement - a charter member of the Kiwanis Club of Carbonear, member of the Masonic Lodge, founding member of the Carbonear Air Cadets, founding member of the Carbonear Heritage Society, member of the Baccalieu Hall of Fame (inducted 1997), has served on the Carbonear Hospital Board, founding member of the Trinity-Conception-Placentia Health Foundation.

• Notable - at 90, he doesn't take any medication or pills, and was recently given a completely clean bill of health from the doctor. In his entire life, he has never once drank an ounce of liquor or a bottle of beer.