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Noble S. Proctor

Posted on May 30, 2015

This moving tribute to Noble Proctor and the accompanying terrific photo are by Patrick Lynch.

Noble S. Proctor, May 28, 2015.

I started at Southern as an art major, and after an unhappy semester and a half I decided to switch to biology. For guidance in the new major I was assigned to a young faculty member, a “Doctor Proctor.” We met, and Dr. Proctor turned out to be a very helpful and patient guide to starting over as a biology major, and after a pleasant half hour or so I went on my way. About six months later I was walking between classes in Morrill Hall, not paying much attention to what was around me, and I suddenly heard “Hi Pat, how’s it going?,” as Noble passed me in the hall. I of course remembered Noble, but I was stunned that with all the hundreds of students he dealt with that Noble had remembered me six months after a brief conversation.

But that was Noble. Every one of his students has at least one of those stories; some of us have dozens. When you’re in your late teens or early twenties you don’t necessarily have the language to communicate what’s so memorable about the particular few people that you meet who are extraordinary, but even when you’re young and inexperienced you know it when you see it. “Centered” is the word I would choose today. In a chaotic world some few people have such a strong and certain sense of self—of their mission and place in the world—that they stand out like lighthouses in your life’s journey.

Bass Rocks gannet colony, Scotland

Noble Proctor at Bass Rocks gannet colony, Scotland by Patrick Lynch

It was not just his profound commitment to the development of his students, not just his awesome depth of knowledge about the natural world, or his incredible powers of concentrated observation of everything around him. In a world where most of us live our lives just a bit off-kilter, striving for what we don’t have, fearing judgment, and needing approval, even a kid could sense that Noble didn’t just know an tremendous amount about the world, he knew and thoroughly inhabited his place in the world with a comfort and certainty most of us will never attain. As a friend and as a teacher Noble was unfailingly warm and supportive, but he didn’t need us. “Need” us in the sense of needing appreciation, needing validation, never giving off that edgy sense of “performance” that even some of the best teachers radiate. He was centered. You knew Noble was where he was, and did what he did, because he loved every minute of his subjects and his courses, and if he had any need, it was simply to share his joy of discovery with you.

Just by happenstance I recently ran into this passage from Richard Dawkins that seemed profoundly right:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia… In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”

None of us knows how much time we will get as life’s “lucky ones.” The best we can do is not to waste what we are given, to suck every opportunity dry, to glory in every spring warbler, and every fall wildflower. To see and to hear and to learn about what most people never even notice. To wonder at the sizzle of all the life around us, and to never let grace and beauty go unnoticed.

From Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
“The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded a corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

Noble was always ‘there,’ and wanted us to be there too. That was Noble’s lasting gift to his friends and students.

Patrick Lynch