Former Gov. Noel reflects on career, but he hasn’t retired

Posted 4/6/23

“When I get older, I’m going to retire.”

With a little wink and a nod, that’s how former Rhode Island Governor Philip W. Noel, who will turn 92 this coming June, answered …

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Former Gov. Noel reflects on career, but he hasn’t retired


“When I get older, I’m going to retire.”

With a little wink and a nod, that’s how former Rhode Island Governor Philip W. Noel, who will turn 92 this coming June, answered the “retirement” question.

By most accounts, our former Governor enjoyed a highly successful career in government, law and business.   From humble beginnings as a commercial fisherman, this straight A student graduated with a degree in economics from Brown University in 1954 with the help of a football scholarship and then earned his Juris Doctor degree from Georgetown University Law School in 1957.

Not long after returning home to practice law and then marrying the late Joyce Sandberg (a former Miss Rhode Island) and having five children along the way, he was elected to serve three terms on the Warwick City Council, and was then elected Mayor of the City of Warwick where he successfully served for three terms.

In November of 1972, he was elected Governor of the State of Rhode Island, serving in our state’s highest office from January 2, 1973, until January 4, 1977.

To say that his four years as Governor were eventful would be an enormous understatement.

Asked what he thought his most important accomplishments were, Phil Noel went on a blistering recital of times, dates and people that would set your head spinning. 

His recitation started with his fond memories of being elected chair of the Democratic Governors Association (a rare feat for someone in his second term) and being sent to China to discuss policy issues of importance to both nations and further the effort to normalize diplomatic relations.   In those days, China might have been as foreign to Americans as the planet Saturn, with a veil of secrecy that was being opened for the first time by the Nixon Administration.

Governor Noel reflected, “we (his seven-member US delegation) were the guest of Chairman Mao (Zedong), who was ill at the time.   Even though Chairman Mao was not there, his second in command, Zhou Enlai, who was the Premier at the time, was.   During the Premier’s comments, he said some negative things about the US and did so in a forceful way.   I realized that he was testing the strength of the US, so when I spoke, I fully engaged him and did so in a forceful way accordingly.  We finally agreed to disagree!”  (Phil was never a potted plant).

Developing good jobs

Closer to home, he said that his overarching goal at the time was “to develop good jobs for people.   I was always concerned that the State suffered not only from high unemployment, but also underemployment, which means that families are not making a living wage.”

 The former Brown University economics major went on to explain that though unemployment rates are meaningful measures, he was always concerned that those numbers “are sometimes phony numbers, because they measure people that are employed, but not the percentage of people who are under-employed.  Making minimum wage does not feed a family of four.”

 With that bedrock policy goal, Governor Noel ticked off some of his most important successes.  “First, the creation of the Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Corporation (now Rhode Island Housing), which he explained “never spent a nickel of taxpayer money,” but the corporation, according to the Governor, “has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in financing, mostly for housing for lower and middle-income Rhode Island families.”

Secondly, “the creation of the Rhode Island Port Authority and Development Company, which has also provided hundreds of millions of dollars in financing to help businesses locate in Rhode Island.”   According to the Governor, “that industrial development includes Quonset Business Park, where there are now over 200 companies that employ over twelve-thousand people.  The Quonset Business Park is rated as one of the Top 10 in the country.  On top of that, according to a study released in 2018, it employs 4.8% of the total number of workers in the state, and with an average wage that is 19% higher than the average wage statewide.”

 Thirdly, we brought EB (Electric Boat division of General Dynamics) to Quonset.   EB, considered the crown jewel of submarine building, is now building the new Columbia class of submarine, with what is believed to be the largest defense contract for submarines ever issued by the US government.”

Fourthly, “we created the Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline in 1974.  Though it didn’t make the headlines like the others, this was extremely important to the people of Rhode Island in that it provided a mechanism to make certain that we have maximum productivity in our judicial system.”

Bringing in Fidelity

He then rattled off a list of close confidants he turned to, to help move Rhode Island forward, including the late James Skeffington, whom he said played a pivotal role in luring Fidelity Investments to Smithfield, instead of expanding in Massachusetts.  Those efforts, he explained, resulted in over 2,000 mostly high-paying jobs for Rhode Island families.

We then started talking about when he left office.   Not surprisingly, the Governor was funny and animated, sprinkling the conversation with some colorful metaphors and jokes.

He recalled founding an oil field services company down south and was later joined by his son Joe who was “instrumental in its growth”, drilling for oil and gas, building apartment houses, traveling to the Middle East, and teaming with Joe again to purchase and completely renovate the Harbor Lights Marina and Country Club on Warwick Neck, which he called a “highly successful” noting that last year they were host to over 80 weddings as well.

In creating the unique combination (rare on the East Coast), the Noels merged the Country Club with the marina that the Governor had owned for over 50 years with old pals Ted Wheeler and Leo Martin.

Beyond the items listed above, the former Governor still develops real estate projects (mostly with son Joe) in Louisiana.

 Asked what he does these days when he’s not getting court houses named after him (the Governor Philip W. Noel Judicial Complex on Route 2 in Warwick) getting honorary degrees from colleges like the New England Institute of Technology, and being admitted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame, he says he enjoys spending time with family and friends.

While retirement is not something on his agenda, this avid sportsman and outdoorsman still enjoys the sea.   “I love to fish but I don’t get to do much of that because I am so busy.”  (The Governor recently purchased an 18-year-old cruising boat which he is converting into a fishing boat.  It is of course docked at his Marina).

He still handles his family’s legal business and is almost 92 going on 50.

I have every confidence that he’ll be enjoying his family, doing business deals, catching stripers and telling jokes like only he can, for a very long time.


2 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • jwbutler51

    Hi Mr. Noel:

    You are just like my late father, Howard Winstead, whom you knew for many years. As my dad always said "I might not do as much as I did when I was younger, but as long as I get up every day and accomplish something, I am OK" So true.

    You are a wonderful person, someone that I have always been able to talk to. Then the stories would begin about the "olden days". I love hearing all of them.

    You represented our City and State with dignity, something I will never forget. Now, get outside and get that boat ready and start hitting some golf balls!!

    Joyce Winstead Butler

    Thursday, April 6, 2023 Report this

  • MikkeyDee

    My dad mentioned often how much he enjoyed an occasional morning coffee with you...a long time ago.

    He respected you very much.

    Mike Droitcour

    Friday, April 7, 2023 Report this