Robert C. Noël
| 1929-2023

Robert Chisholm Noël passed away Wednesday, April 5 at the age of 93. In his long life, Bob made many friends through his career in higher education, but most people in Santa Barbara might know him best as a stalwart on the Santa Barbara School Board for over a decade at the turn of this century.

Born in 1929 in Pasadena, California, he grew up during the Depression in a small household with his parents and older brother, Tom. In his youth and young adulthood, he bred and sold parakeets to make extra money. He also was a bicycle paperboy, pressed early vinyl records at a factory, and assisted in his father’s professional photography studio. Tom taught him how to build custom hot rods by swapping out the frequently interchangeable parts on early automobiles, and how to get into, and occasionally out of, trouble. As a kid he was curious and mischievous, and he held onto those traits his entire life.

Bob loved jazz and big bands, and, as a teen, he would spend his Sundays dancing in his leather-soled shoes, “to the left of the bandstand where all the best dancers were,” at the Hollywood Palladium. He was drafted in his early twenties into the Korean War, and he was stationed in Japan and Korea as a Morse code operator. He loved experiencing different cultures but was strongly against war. When he returned home, using GI Bill funds, he studied at several universities, and received his PhD in Political Behavior and International Relations from Northwestern University.

In 1963, Bob Noël became a professor at UC Santa Barbara in the Political Science Department, and he was instrumental in the campus’s early involvement in the ARPANET, a predecessor to the internet. His work involved Cold War–era war game simulations with other universities. He also established and was the director of the Polis Lab at UCSB, and mentored many undergraduate and graduate students, developing life-long friendships with some. 

Bob spent the majority of his professorial career teaching courses on international relations, nuclear proliferation, and the Middle East. He traveled extensively for his research and once was sent to Palestine as an emissary of the United Nations. He also taught at Penn State and was a visiting professor at Stanford. His out-of-the-box teaching style was exemplified by a course on nuclear deterrence in which he organized a class field trip from Santa Barbara to board a ballistic missile submarine at the Naval Base in Bremerton, Washington. His sons got to sit at the controls of the (non-activated) missile launch control station, while his students learned in a very hands-on way.

Bob loved building things, and one of his biggest undertakings was when he purchased a river barge, the Noordster (“North Star”), in Belgium and worked with friends and builders to convert it into a houseboat. He was sartorially minded, liked virtually anything à la mode, and picked up new skills and styles wherever he went. He loved New York City, European and Native American cultures, cosmopolitan places, art, Scandinavian design, travel, and action movies. One of his deepest passions was cooking and food. Throughout his life he attended numerous cooking schools around the world and always desired to learn new techniques and recipes.

Following his retirement from UCSB in 1997, he leaned into his passion for local issues by running for Santa Barbara School Board in 1998. His three consecutive campaigns were all smashing successes, in large part due to his unorthodox advertising vehicle: a Type A yellow school bus, plastered with banners and his “Straight Talk About Schools” slogan.

In his 12 years on the Santa Barbara school board, Bob was ardent and dedicated himself to public service, pouring hours each day into research and policy reform. One of the issues he was most passionate about was equal access to high-quality education and resources for underserved students. He was a firebrand on the board and infamous for showing up to meetings with his own lengthy research reports showing disturbing gaps in achievement and massive home-made charts and graphs. The man loved data. He was described by local newspapers as “an outspoken champion of procedure and an unrelenting watchdog of bureaucratic transparency.” He stepped down from the School Board at age 81 in 2010. 

Bob taught one final class at UCSB, aptly entitled Politics and Power in Local Education: A Political Scientist’s Perspective, before truly retiring from his 50+ year career in education.

In the ensuing years, Bob found his greatest joy simply in the company of family and friends. He was effusive in his profound love for and pride in his wife, children, and grandchildren, and he welcomed the kids’ respective partners wholeheartedly into the family. He is survived by his wife Leila, daughter Lisa, sons Christopher and Bret, daughters-in-law Whitney and Sammie, grandchildren Sophia and Callum, and pups Nala and Cava. We all will miss him most dearly. We also want to thank the incomparable home health aides, Luis and Edgar, who in recent years offered such exceptional support, comfort, and camaraderie to Bob and to our family.


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