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Robert Jackson Noell (1908-12)

Robert Jackson Noell was born December 15, 1864, at Christiansburg, Virginia, and is the seventh son and youngest of ten children. He is of English and French descent on his father's side, English and Welsh on his mother's. Reduced from affluence by the Civil War, his father opened the Montgomery Hotel at Christiansburg, and it was under these circumstances his son, Robert Jackson, commenced his life work by attending the public school, and requested his father to give him an education in preference to patrimony of any other kind. This wise father gave him the opportunity to "work out his own salvation" by placing in his hands old accounts, the collection of which was to pay his way through college. He matriculated at the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College in the fall of 1879 and passed his college course with honor and distinction in spite of many hindrances. As ranking officer he was selected by the President and the Commandant and directed to take charge of the barracks, with any comrades he might choose to assist him, for the purpose of breaking up "The Knights of the Devil's Gang," an organized band of students of the "baser sort," who were making night hideous to both town and college. This young leader, with the aid of the better class of students, faculty, and military power, brought order out of chaos; nor did he regret the loss of time and the many sacrifices involved. He was president of the Lee Literary Society this year, and made the valedictory address at Commencement.

Notwithstanding many difficulties, the most serious of which was the illness of his father, detaining him at home several weeks, he graduated at the head of his class in the mechanical course, and second on a general average in the class of 1881-82. This year, the Board of Visitors raised the course of study, conferring the degree of Bachelor of Arts, and elected Mr. Noell instructor for the preparatory department, he being the first graduate of the college ever given a position as teacher. He taught this department, handled the text-books of the college, assisted in making out reports, and pursued his course of study, receiving at the close of the session of 1882-83, with W. L. Hovern, his diploma, the first degree conferred by the Institute. With an increase of salary for the next two years, Mr. Noell was promoted to general assistant teacher, librarian, and bookkeeper for the college. During this time, he read law to some extent, but, owing to the congested condition of the profession, he abandoned his hopes along this line, and at the close of the session of '85 resigned his position in college, and went into the drug business in Christiansburg with W. A. Wilson & Co. The same year he opened the drug store of Wilson & Noell, at Radford, Va. The partnerships were continued five years with more success than had been anticipated. This was the result of the hardest work of his life, posting books into the "wee sma' hours" of the night, and collecting in sunshine and rain. The boom saw the investment and loss of thousands of dollars, nest eggs in bank, bonds, and deposits going alike with the inflated values of lots and stocks. After ten years of strenuous work the debts are paid, and at this late day some of the transactions of those lively times are proving profitable.

Mr. Noell was appointed Postmaster at East Radford, Virginia, by President Cleveland in 1893, the only public position of emolument he ever held or applied for, though he served his city on the school board and city council for years. His administration of the post-office was a credit to himself and satisfactory to the public, as was evidenced by the general regret when he left this position. As chairman of the finance committee of Radford, his efforts have always been directed towards the betterment of the public schools, and, as the result of these efforts, aided by those of his co-laborers, two new modern school buildings are now in course of construction at a cost of $30,000. The appreciation of his valuable services to his city was shown in his reelection to the city council last spring by a majority greater than that received by any other candidate. He has been engaged for a number of years in the mercantile business, in addition to managing his splendid blue-grass farm of four hundred acres, which is stocked with sheep and cattle, and from which he gathers a big hay harvest. He has been blessed with good health, never having been confined to bed a day since he was a child. His meals and hours for sleep have been very irregular, but, never having used tobacco or intoxicants, he has a good balance of vitality in his favor. He looks back with satisfaction to the fact that during his six years at Blacksburg as student and teacher he never loafed an hour in the town, and, as a souvenir of those old days, he is still using in his room the lamp purchased from Dr. Conway for one dollar and a half.

His devotion to the Institute and her Alumni has been manifested by his service on numerous committees, and by his participation in all measures and plans for their aid and support. Representing the Alumni Association, he wrote "The Life and Character of President Thomas Nelson Conrad," and is now engaged in securing a tablet to his memory to be placed in the College.

Mr. Noell was married to Miss Irene James, of Axton, Pittsylvania County, Virginia, January 22, 1888, and to them were born eight boys, four of whom are now living.

He sustained a great shock and irreparable loss in the death of his wife, August 7, 1904.

About two years ago, Mr. Noell was appointed on the Board of Visitors of the State Female Normal School, and the writer can testify to his value during the short time he served. He quickly observed the inadequate grounds, and, with Professor Walker and Mr. Richmond, recommended in a committee report the purchase of additional grounds to be properly laid off and beautified. This much needed improvement has been fully recognized as an important addition to the Institution.

But a broader field of work needed him; and last spring Governor Swanson appointed him on the Board of his alma mater, where his ability has been at once recognized and is already beginning to tell. At the Board meeting November 20, he offered a valuable resolution which was adopted. This resolution gives the Board five committees instead of one, as heretofore, Mr. Noell serves on two of them, and is chairman of the one on "Finance and Expense of Students."

The writer predicts for him the faithful discharge of his duties, and knows that Mr. Noell attributes whatever success he has attained primarily to the discipline of his worthy parents, to his own energy, to the training given him at the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, and to his splendid and incomparable wife.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute Bulletin, Vol. II, Number 1, January, 1909, pp. 17-19

From the Bulletin of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute -- The State Agricultural and Mechanical College, Alumni Number, Vol. 2, No. 1, January 1909