Friday, August 5, 2011
Noel Evans, RIP
March was a difficult time for me. I had a much-loved aunt dying of cancer, and visited her for the last time. A fellow Gideon succumbed to heart disease. A former co-worker and friend was lost to cancer. Looking for a little respite from the death that seemed to be surrounding me, I was looking forward to working at the State High School Hockey tournament.
But instead of finding an escape, in my first hour I had two of my regular season-ticket holders show up without their usual companions. First, a man from Hudson, Wisconsin, showed up without his son, who had been wheelchair bound since a motorcycle accident. They sat on the disabled-seating platform at the top of my section and we had great visits every year. But his son had recently contracted pneumonia and was unable to beat the infection. Just a few minutes later, the husband of an elderly couple from Woodbury who attended every year arrived without his wife. He explained to me that she had passed just a few weeks earlier, and in one of their last conversations in the hospital as death neared, he told me that she reminded him to "get to the tournament and tell Tim how much I enjoyed talking with him."
All of this tore at my heartstrings. And then along came Noel Evans.
Noel was one of the very first people I met when I moved to Red Wing in 1980. A dentist, his office was down the block from the newspaper office where I worked. He had a son, Erik, who was a gifted hockey player, and Noel was anxious to meet the new guy who would be covering hockey. He loved to talk about sports, and we hit it off immediately.
A Red Wing high school grad, he lettered in baseball and football, and lettered in baseball at St. Olaf. He got his dental degree at the University of Minnesota, and he loved Gopher sports his whole life. After a two-year stint in the Air Force he returned home to Red Wing and ran a dental practice for the next 35 years. But describing Noel as just a "dentist" or a "hockey parent" doesn't come close to doing him justice. Noel was the sort of guy who was part of the fabric of Red Wing, and evidence of his involvement was everywhere.
He was a Jaycee, and was their "Young Man of the Year" in 1966. He coached Little League. He taught Sunday school at United Lutheran for 25 years. He was a member of the Rotary and Lions and Kiwanis clubs, as well as the local American Legion post. He was chairman of the school board, and he helped found the Red Wing Amateur Hockey Association. His name is on the Red Wing High School Wall of Honor.
It was hard to NOT find Noel around Red Wing. If the Lions were selling peanuts or collecting old eyeglasses, Noel was there. If you went to the Kiwanis pancake breakfast, Noel was over the stove, flipping pancakes. If you went to a high school football, basketball or hockey game, chances are Noel was somewhere in the bleachers.
When hockey began in Red Wing, there was no local arena. Having driven his children all over southern Minnesota in search of ice time, Noel decided to spearhead the drive to get Red Wing its own rink, and over the years my stories in the Red Wing paper quoted him any number of times. The effort succeeded, and when Bergwall Arena opened on Valentine's Day in 1983, Noel had the biggest smile in the place. His love of Red Wing and his community involvement were unmatched. Even in retirement he mowed lawns for the city and was a substitute rural mail carrier. His whole life revolved around serving others.
After our kids grew we saw each other less, but bumped into each other from time to time, and we always saw each other in March at the state hockey tournament. He and a couple other locals shared some season tickets in my section, and it was always a highlight of the weekend to catch up, ask about each other's children and hear his thoughts on the tourney.
Last March, he approached me at Xcel Energy Center, walking with a bit of a limp. Because he was 74 years old, and still very active, I assumed he had undergone a knee or hip replacement. No, he told me, they had found cancer in his lungs and it had already spread. In all likelihood, he said, this would be his last state hockey tournament.
Which just didn't seem possible. And it still doesn't, even though I attended his funeral today, and he was laid to rest on the outskirts of Red Wing, just a couple slap shots away from his home. The church was filled to overflowing, and the minister said, "Noel's smile told people more about Christ's love than any of my sermons ever did."
Leaving the church, I had a moment with his widow, Alberta, and I told her that "Every kid who ever skated at Bergwall Arena owes something to Noel." Which is true enough, but again, doesn't do justice to the legacy of a great guy who did so much for so many, and did it all with a smile on his face and a song in his heart. Thank you, my friend, and God bless.