Bill Noble first noticed how money can divide people and neighborhoods in Cambridge when he arrived at Harvard College in the late 1950s as a scholarship student who paid his way in part through a work-study program.
“He became very much aware of the inequities of class,” said Connie Thibaut, his longtime partner.
Rather than use his Harvard degree as a springboard into the city’s upper economic echelons, Mr. Noble became an activist who worked with organizations, authored proposed ordinances, collaborated on petitions, and spoke out on behalf of those who had the least.
“He was important as an activist because he had deep feelings about the work that he was doing,” said Neil Rohr, who also has long been active in Cambridge causes. “He was very committed to the whole notion of fairness, and that people should be treated fairly as tenants and community members.”
Mr. Noble, a founding member of the Cambridge Tenants Union and an unstinting advocate for using rent control and other measures to protect the city’s less affluent residents, died of pneumonia Feb. 7 in the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bedford. He was 79 and had moved to Arlington a little more than 20 years ago.
“He certainly was important to the struggle — to more than one struggle,” said Bill Cavellini, a Cambridge activist and community organizer who had worked alongside Mr. Noble.
“He was very principled, and he didn’t have much patience for people who weren’t principled, who were self-centered and selfish,” Cavellini added. “He not only held himself to his standards, but he also tried to hold other people to his standards. He was a forceful person wherever he was.”
In the 1980s, as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology moved forward with its University Park development in an area where the Simplex Wire and Cable Co. previously operated, Mr. Noble lived in one of the few still-occupied residential houses in the neighborhood.
The development was “what we call an MIT entertaining and drinking district,” Mr. Noble told The New York Times in April 1987. “There will be lots of expensive retail shops. Property values are going to continue to skyrocket. It means a lot of people are going to be displaced.”
A few months later he lamented to the Globe: “They want to turn this area into another Kendall Square.”
Eventually he became one of the displaced, but not before helping to negotiate an exchange in which a handful of affordable-housing units were built at the edge of University Park to make up for houses like his that the project swallowed, Cavellini recalled. “That was no small thing,” he added.
Mr. Noble’s “skills were not so much in organizing as they were in attention to detail and advocating in the public arena,” Cavellini said. “He had a unique quality that I think stood him well in the work he did on the Simplex issue, as well as the work he did trying to preserve rent control and advocating for tenants’ rights.”
Rohr said that “a sense of fairness just pervaded his work, and that’s what drove him. It wasn’t just politics.”
In January 1993, Mr. Noble wrote a letter to the membership of the Cambridge Tenants Union that gazed back at what activists had done and looked forward to future challenges.
“As the world lurches ahead and a lot of people have a vested interest in keeping us distracted from and disinformed about what is really going on,” he wrote, “tenants, who, in the midst of it all, may not be the most happily placed of citizens, must rededicate themselves to making the City of Cambridge work for all its residents.”
Born in Chicago, William Schofield Noble spent his early boyhood in Evanston, Ill., and then moved with his family to Glencoe, Ill., north of Chicago. He was the oldest of three sons born to William Holden Noble, a lawyer, and the former Margaret Thompson Schofield, who taught high school English literature and, in later years, at a community college in Greater Boston.
Mr. Noble went to New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., and graduated from Harvard in 1960 with a bachelor’s degree in English literature.
“He was genuinely a scholar and an intellectual person, and at the same time very down-to-earth,” Thibaut said. At Harvard, where he was less well-off than most of his classmates, “he became aware of hypocrisy,” she said. “He became aware of the emphasis at Harvard on money and prestige, as opposed to a genuine interest in ideas.”
Enlisting in the military after college, Mr. Noble was recruited to serve in Army intelligence and was stationed during the Cold War in what was then West Berlin. When he finished his military service, he stayed on for several years traveling and working in Europe, and living for a time in Paris.
Returning to Cambridge, he was an accountant and comanager of the Pamplona Café, working for its founder, Josefina Yanguas, who died in 2007. Mr. Noble also worked as a French and German translator of documents, and a construction manager. In later years, he worked at a software firm.
His calling throughout was tenants’ rights, however. He was a founding member of the Cambridge Rent Control Coalition, a precursor to the Cambridge Tenants Union, and had worked with Riverside-Cambridgeport Community Corporation, a nonprofit housing agency.
When the agency closed, he took on the difficult work of ensuring that its properties remained affordable, said Jeff Murray, who had worked with Mr. Noble.
“We were able to achieve something with him that I don’t think we would have been able to do without him,” Murray said. “Bill was a really exceptional person that you don’t come across very often.
Mr. Noble “earned a degree from an Ivy League university, and yet he devoted himself to struggling and fighting for the neighborhoods, not to the elite,” Thibaut said.
They were a couple for about three decades, after meeting through the Cambridge Tenants Union, where she edited the Tenant Independent newsletter.
“He utterly ignored the pressure to get ahead, to make money, to step on his colleagues and compete,” she said. “Instead, he was always working on behalf of those who were defenseless. That’s quintessentially Bill.”
A service will be announced for Mr. Noble, who in addition to Thibaut leaves his two brothers, Henry of Winchester, Va., and Thomas of Santa Fe.
“When I think of Billy, he was just a good person as well. I look back very fondly toward Bill,” Rohr said. “Bill was a very serious person, though he could laugh. He made you think. You had to be serious about the work.”
In meetings or one-on-one conversations, “you also knew with Bill you’d better come prepared,” Rohr added. And although Mr. Noble “probably was, most of the time, the smartest person in the room, he didn’t come across that way. He didn’t have a need to talk about his intelligence or flaunt it. He just showed it in the way he went about his work.”Bryan Marquard
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