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In Memoriam: Michael Nobles

MIchael Nobles, fourth from right in penguin costume, participates in a fundraiser. Courtesy photo
By Josh Fitzhugh

Occasionally in life you run across things that happen which are unbelievable. You know it’s a contradiction, but that’s how you feel. The explosion of the Challenger space shuttle and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon are examples. The worldwide lockdown from COVID-19 is another.

To me, and many others who knew him, the death of Michael Nobles is a fourth. It just seems unbelievable that he died.

Everything about Michael spoke of youthfulness, wellness, and enthusiasm. He was fifty when he died but looked twenty years younger. He ran 5 and 10 kilometer races like he was still on the UVM track team. There was not an ounce of fat on him. As president of Union Mutual of Vermont companies on State Street, he initiated a “donate not to shave” program for the male employees to build morale, raise money for charity, and — I think — to prove to others that he in fact needed to shave — once in a while.

Michael succeeded me as president of the insurance company, where he had previously served as staff accountant, treasurer and CFO, and executive vice president. Insurance is largely a financial business, and after 25 years at Union, Michael knew our business cold. If a number moved in square 67, he could tell you its impact on any other square in the spreadsheet. Even more remarkable for a “numbers guy,” he could explain all this to financial laymen like me, or others like me on our board of directors.

If that were all Michael could do, we still probably would have elected him CEO. But there was so much more.

Michael really cared about people. He knew the names of all 100 employees. He served burgers at outdoor picnics and organized teams for the Corporate Cup. He was extremely proud of us being selected a Best Places to Work company by Vermont Business Magazine seven years in a row. In recent years he led the company, its employees, and agents in providing major support to the Special Olympics, personally leading the Penguin Plunge jumping into Lake Champlain each winter.

Many in Montpelier know Michael from his efforts this spring organizing a meals program for essential workers and others left destitute by the pandemic. It was a program that helped those individuals but also restaurants and delicatessens in town.

Michael Nobles
As a resident of central Vermont, Michael also contributed to the community. He was a director of Lost Nation Theater and sat on the Montpelier Business Development committee. He loved old cars, and in summer months would sometimes drive his topless Triumph sports car to the office. He was fascinated with clocks and spent hours repairing antique or unusual ones. He wrote with a fountain pen, and his notes were always clear and organized.

But let me get back to unbelievability (if there is such a word). Michael was into WELLNESS. He did everything in his power to improve the health of our employees, and if they didn’t take advantage of some of these programs, he was not reticent, privately, of criticizing them for it. In fact, just recently he received the Vermont Business Wellness Leadership Award.

And yet he died, well before his actuarial life expectancy.

Michael’s obituary asked friends to donate to two causes: to the Special Olympics and to the Movember Foundation, a charity dedicated to improving men’s health by addressing four conditions in particular: testicular cancer, prostate cancer, mental health in general, and suicide. One must conclude that despite his efforts to promote wellness, he himself was not well.

I’m still having great, great difficulty accepting that fact. I could see nothing in him that suggested sickness. Perhaps I was blind, or he was adept (as one friend has suggested) at shifting the focus elsewhere. As chairman of the board of directors of Union Mutual my focus was on the business, and in that sphere Michael excelled. I did not look enough at the person behind the executive. Could my concern, and the concern of others in that sphere, have made a difference? Perhaps, as the website of the Movember Foundation attests. I certainly know I would have tried, because we have just lost a terrific man and a superb chief executive.

Josh Fitzhugh lives in Berlin.