Cover photo for Phyllis Eleanore Noble's Obituary
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1942 Phyllis 2017

Phyllis Eleanore Noble

November 27, 1942 — May 31, 2017


Phyllis Eleanore Noble passed away on Wednesday, May 31, 2017, brought down by the only force that could stop her spirit - the demon cancer. Phyllis was born on November 27, 1942, in Chicago, the daughter of Russell Philip Noble and Olga Mary Kosinski. She never met her father, who was killed in North Africa five months after her birth. Phyllis grew up with her mother and her Polish immigrant grandparents on the northwest side of Chicago, cared for by her grandmother while her mother worked as a telephone operator. At age 16, she learned that she was eligible for benefits through the G.I. Bill, allowing her to graduate from Loyola University with a major in English, the first person in her family to get a college degree.
Shortly after graduation, with one year of teaching under her belt, she answered JFK's call and joined the Peace Corps. She spent the next two years teaching English at a girls' secondary school in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. "Two years in West Africa in the mid-1960s turned my life around," said Phyllis. She developed a deep appreciation for other cultures, witnessed abject poverty, began to question her country's global policies and realized she could travel independently around the world.
On her way home from Nigeria, at age 24, Phyllis stopped in Carthage, Tunisia, to visit her father's grave in the American Military Cemetery.
After a year of social work in Chicago, Phyllis went to Massachusetts to obtain a master's degree in Special Education at Boston College. Back in Chicago, the cause of Racial Justice loomed larger than anything else. From 1970-1975 Phyllis worked as the coordinator of the Cabrini Learning Center Follow-Through Program. As such, she supervised the operation of a K through 3rd Grade 100-student open classroom project on the City's southwest side. Phyllis found herself moved, blessed, and enriched by this work and her colleagues, who welcomed her into another Chicago.
In 1977, she left the States to spend eight months living in Latin America, studying Spanish in Guatemala and Bolivia. She then traveled north, practicing the language, learning about the people. When she returned to Chicago she became the administrator of Instituto del Progreso Latino, an alternative evening high school for adult immigrants from Mexico.
In 1982 Phyllis took excursions from Chicago that yielded two of her most significant pieces of writing. First, as a research intern at the Latino Institute in Reston, Virginia, she authored a monograph on the training of adult education facilitators. The work took as its inspiration the ideas of Paulo Freire--author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed--and sought to apply them to liberatory education projects in the U.S. Then, in July, she flew to Cuba with a group from Northern Illinois University on a mission to study adult education in that country. The daily reflections Phyllis journaled over the ensuing two weeks remain a unique and unfiltered account of the Revolution and its victories, contradictions, challenges, and complexities, as seen from 1982 by a progressive educator.
In 1983 Phyllis married Warren Kmiec, whom she had met in the late '70s through involvement at Sunshower, an organic farm run by mutual friends in Lawrence, Michigan. 1984 brought the birth of their son Zachary. A year and a half later they transplanted to Madison, Wisconsin.
As a mother, Phyllis lavished care and attention upon her son, remaining a full-time parent for five years before returning to the field as a teacher. Over the years she instilled him with the travel bug, taking him on trips around the nation and to other countries, later sending him off on solo excursions to nourish his interest in foreign lands and languages. She made good on a personal imperative to finance his post-secondary education, always reminding him that more funds were available should he choose to continue in academia. Then she observed, patient and trusting, as he used his university education to ride bicycles and flip eggs. Phyllis and Zach took their final excursion as stalwart travel companions in 2013, spending six weeks in western, central, and eastern Europe, traveling overland to visit Warren at his Peace Corps post near Orhei, Moldova.
In Madison, Phyllis opened innumerable doors for others through her work as a dedicated educator. From the adult students in her English as a Second Language and U.S. Citizenship classes at Madison Area Technical College, to the leagues of middle and high school students she taught during her fourteen years in the Madison Metropolitan School District, Phyllis worked with English language learners across a broad spectrum of backgrounds and age groups.
Teaching saw Phyllis through many a 50-hour work week. Then, upon retirement, she finally got busy. Phyllis sang with the Raging Grannies, inventoried the Wisconsin Medical Project, and kept dynamic and immaculate gardens. A romance and deep partnership with Bob Klein, whom she'd first met through the Peace Corps in the '60s, brought her into the fold of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Oral History Archives Project. Phyllis brought organization to the effort, eventually taking the reins. She wrote abstracts and project guides, created databases and sought funding, and between 2008 and 2017 conducted 64 interviews with RPCVs across the nation.
If there was a central theme to Phyllis's life, it would be to advance the cause of justice. She was truly a child of the '60s who walked the walk and made the world a better place. Ask any of her ELL students who learned English and were then able to negotiate their new lives; ask her teaching colleagues, who regularly noticed her car parked early and late at school; ask the people she served in her Peace Corps assignments; ask her neighbors, who watched her religiously attack the unsightly weeds in her gardens; ask the Raging Grannies, whose mission is to speak (or sing) truth to power.
Family history was also important to her. In the mid '90s, after a Christmas dinner with cousins led to head-scratching and napkin-doodling over genealogy, Phyllis tackled the mammoth task of tracing the chain of descendants from one pair of great-grandparents down through the present generation. Over the course of six years she tracked down cousins and cousins of cousins, piecing the puzzle together. Today, copies of the Bienia Family Tree have made it to relatives in California, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, New York, Maryland, Paris, Lyon, and several cities in Poland.
Phyllis was enthusiastic about so many things: all the arts (music, dance, theater, film, literature), gardening, teaching, languages, politics, international relations. And travel. Travel was a true passion. In addition to her Peace Corps assignment, Phyllis traveled to Poland, France, Moldova, China, Mexico, Cuba, Australia, ... and many, many parts of Latin American and the US. Indeed, soon after she received her diagnosis, she took a road trip to the south and west, visiting friends and loved ones. She was the epitome of the "life-long learner" in that her mind was always open to new information and ideas. She was never at a loss for conversation, but she was never one-sided. She would always draw out others to hear their thoughts/wishes/dreams/ stories. A loyal friend, she would always ask about spouses, children, grandchildren with sincere interest.
Phyllis was a force of nature; a spirit like hers cannot just disappear. Go outside on a clear night and look up at the sky. Find the brightest star. Be assured that it is glowing a bit brighter because it has been touched by Phyllis' bright light.
Phyllis is survived by her beloved son, Zachary Noble Kmiec, her former husband, Warren Kmiec, and her stepson Amos Kmiec. She was preceded in death by her parents, and by her partner Bob Klein.
A celebration of Phyllis's life will be held from 4:30 pm until 6:30 pm on Saturday, June 10th, 2017, at Burrows Park, 25 Burrows Rd, Madison, WI 53704. Memorial contributions can be sent to the National Peace Corps Association, and will be directed toward the Oral History Project: https://www.peacecorpsconnect.org/campaigns/rpcv-oral-history-project or send a check payable to NPCA, 1900 L Street NW, Suite 610, Washington, DC 20036 with "RPCV Oral History Project" in the memo line.

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