David Noble once told a colleague that people either saw patterns in history, or they didn't.
"If you didn't, you didn't know what the hell you were talking about most of the time," recalled Peter Carroll, a Stanford University professor who co-wrote a textbook with Noble.
One of the University of Minnesota's longest-serving professors, Noble earned acclaim for his work connecting the dots of American history and including among its protagonists a diverse cast of ordinary people. He died at age 92 on March 11 of complications from congestive heart failure.
Noble traced the arc of American intellectual thought for generations of students, enlivening some lectures with costumed impersonations of historical characters from Thomas Jefferson to Norman Mailer. He taught at the U from 1952 until 2009, primarily in American studies.
"He has been able to integrate the humanities, the arts, literature, into a history of ideas and fuse them into meaningful questions," his colleague and friend Hy Berman, who died in 2015, once said. "He finds the essence of the historical enterprise in the attitudes and life of ordinary human beings, not only the great shakers and thinkers."
He wrote 10 books and was in the middle of an 11th when he died. They ranged from "The Free and the Unfree," a textbook chronicling America's development from the perspective of marginalized communities, to "Death of a Nation," exploring America's evolving national identity as it grew less isolated from the rest of the world.
"He was one of the first of the historical revisionists — the people that looked at United States history and said the triumphant westward expansion, 'great man' narrative could be challenged," said Roy Magnuson, a friend who teaches history at St. Paul's Como Park High School.
Noble wasn't afraid to speak his mind, and his opposition to the Vietnam War attracted the surveillance of the federal government. His daughter Tricia Noble-Olson recalled FBI agents coming to their St. Paul home.
"I hid in the dining room and listened curiously," Noble-Olson said. "[They] just basically said, 'We're watching you, we're watching your activities because you're speaking out against the Vietnam War.' "
Noble also supervised more than 100 dissertations, a multiyear commitment that former colleague David Roediger said is a tremendous feat.
"That was because he was interested in so many different things," said Roediger, now at the University of Kansas. "It was very different from his generation of scholars, which often in history had a little carved-out area that they worked in and that their students worked in."
His spirit lives on in the department's annual David Noble Lecture Series. This year's speaker will focus on indigenous-language North American literature.
Noble was raised on a dairy farm in Princeton, N.J., where he occasionally delivered milk to Albert Einstein. He later attended Princeton University and the University of Wisconsin.
His old Victorian house in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood of St. Paul became legendary in its own right after one of his children moved back in, eventually followed by grandchildren and even some great-grandchildren.
"[The house] is affectionately called the St. Paul commune by my family," Noble's sister-in-law the Rev. Maureen C. Otwell said at his memorial service. "It welcomed many over the years, and the rooms were always changing and shifting depending on need."
Noble is survived by his wife, Gail; daughters Tricia Noble-Olson of St. Paul and Jessica Noble of Washington, D.C.; and son David Noble Jr. of Washington, D.C. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Lois, and a son, Douglas. Services were held March 17.