A Life: Lafayette Hachiro Noda, 1916 — 2013; ‘He Approached Every Aspect of Life With a Real Zest’
At the Noda Christmas Tree Farm in Meriden, Micah Berman, 14, receives a lesson on tree trimming from owner Lafayette Noda in July 2007. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
Lafayette Noda prepares to go on a flight with the Post Mills Soaring Club last summer as his daughter, Kesaya Noda, and her husband Chris Dye watch. (Diana Clark photograph)
Meriden — By the time Lee and Betsy Lynd and their children moved next door in the early 1980s, Lafayette Noda had been cultivating his family, his Bean Road farm and his friends and neighbors for nearly 25 years.
And now, freshly retired from his biochemistry research at Dartmouth Medical School, Noda was devoting more time than ever to welcoming newcomers into the rotation.
“I would wake up on snowy mornings to the sound of Lafayette snow-blowing our driveway,” Lee Lynd, a professor at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, recalled in a letter to Noda’s daughter before Noda’s memorial service this past winter. “After a few times telling him that we found it embarrassing to have an elderly neighbor snow-blow our driveway, he acquiesced and did not do that any more.”
Not to worry, with so much other work to do — such as the time the retired biochemistry researcher joined Lynd and a friend, each less than half Noda’s age, in digging out the Lynds’ basement.
“We worked in silence with pick ax, shovel and wheelbarrow, with Lafayette matching stroke for stroke with neighbors 40 years his junior,” Lynd wrote. “After nearly half an hour, Lafayette leaned on his shovel and said, ‘I don’t know how you boys do it.’ ”
People were saying the same thing about Noda right up until he died in February, at age 96.
“The words ‘sturdy’ and ‘plucky’ sort of apply, but they don’t quite capture him,” his daughter Kesaya Noda said recently. “He was very resourceful and very tenacious. He really liked a good challenge.
“He approached every aspect of life with a real zest.”
How else to explain how Noda emerged from a childhood and early adulthood of poverty, and from what his daughter describes as “ferocious” anti-Asian discrimination in California — before, during and after the years the Noda family spent in an internment camp — with degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, UCLA and Stanford?
How else to explain the gumption to move, with wife Mayme, to research posts in Wisconsin and Maryland, before finding, in icy New Hampshire, just the right place to raise Kesaya and son David, to live their Quaker beliefs and to work their own land.
In the Upper Valley, when he wasn’t unveiling clues to the causes and prevention of heart attacks during 25 years in the Department of Biochemistry at Dartmouth Medical School — more than 20 years as chairman — Lafayette was studying the quirks of and possibilities for the 40-acre farm that he and Mayme bought in Meriden in 1959.
“He was so darned hard working,” said Henry Homeyer of Cornish, who got to know the Nodas through Mayme’s work in the antiwar movement during the Vietnam era, and wrote about their farm in his syndicated column about gardening. “He had a full-time job at Dartmouth Medical School, incredibly demanding, and yet he would take on these huge projects.”
The Nodas started preparing for Lafayette’s Really Big Project months before his retirement from the medical school in 1982. In a journal from the spring of 1981, Kesaya Noda and her husband, Chris Dye, recently found a notation about Noda purchasing blueberry plants to supplement the ones he found on the property in 1959. Within a few years, the Nodas were reaping blueberries from two of their 40 acres, Christmas trees from four of them — and harvesting even more friends and admirers.
“When my daughter died, and we had the celebration of her life, they let us hold it at their pond,” Meriden resident Doris LaVarn said. “It was wonderful of them. My daughter used to swim at their pond, as many of us did.”
Among them were the children of Lee and Betsy Lynd.
“My brothers and I, we all had our first job pruning Christmas trees for Lafayette,” Hilary Lynd said recently. “I remember him driving around on his scooter, smiling and waving, and Mayme on the doorstep, yelling, ‘Lafayette!’ ”
It all seemed like this state of grace might go on forever, until Mayme died in 2007, and Lafayette, in a late-life tussle with Alzheimer’s, turned over more and more responsibility for the farm to Kesaya and her husband a few years ago.
Then came a new season no one expected.
“It pained him terribly when he couldn’t use his mind anymore like he used to, but he brilliantly compensated,” Kesaya said. “He had such a grace about the way that he aged. He accepted things, and became so generous. … He looked at life as something fascinating. He was always learning and curious.”
Take that outing to the airport in Post Mills last summer. Kesaya and her husband noticed that members of the Post Mills Sailing Club were offering rides in gliders and wondered whether Lafayette might enjoy it.
In the post he later wrote for the sailing club’s blog, veteran pilot Rick Sheppe remembers wondering, at first, why the Nodas picked this day — and picked Sheppe — for the flight.
“I was trying to think of a more polite version of, ‘Sure, go ask someone else,’ when (Kesaya) continued, ‘He’s 96,’ ” Sheppe wrote. “That got my attention!”
Sheppe got Noda’s attention once they reached 3,000 feet and the tow plane — and with it the noise in their ears — fell away.
“We flew into a patch of rising air, and I described to him the indications on the instruments. We watched another glider fly by underneath us, and Lafayette concluded, correctly, ‘He’s going down.’ In fact, the other glider was entering the landing pattern ahead of us. We found some more rising air and circled in it, climbing 500 feet while waiting for our turn to land. Finally, I reached for my airbrake handle and tapped him on the knee with the other handle. He moved his leg out of the way and said, ‘OK, we’re landing now.’ ”
They returned to cheers worthy of Lindbergh’s arrival in Paris and to a question from spectator Diana Clark, who shot photographs for Sheppe’s blog post.
“(Lafayette) was so thrilled and excited, not at all scared,” Clark recalled last week. “When he finally landed I asked him about the experience. He said he felt free, like he was floating.”
Kesaya Noda can hardly think of a better memory for her father to ride out of this realm.
“He grew so much in the last three or four or five years of his life, spiritually and emotionally,” Noda’s daughter says. “He was able to be open, to embrace people in a way he’d never been able to before — to say ‘thank you’ and ‘I love you.’ He laughed a lot. This big, hearty laugh. I never heard him laugh that way growing up. He had a flowering in the last days of his life. It’s been an inspiration to me. We can learn more. We can change. We can grow.
“That was his gift.”
That, and another cycle of blueberries flourishing in the Upper Valley’s first summer without Lafayette Noda.
“They’re big this year!” Kesaya Noda said. “They’re huge, because of all the water, all the rain.”