Anne Ford 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Boyhood Friendship with a Lion Pays Dividends a Half-Century Later After 40 years of friendship, there isn’t much that buddies Frederick Noesner and Michael Marotta don’t know about each other. Still, every now and then Marotta catches himself failing to recall one prominent fact about his pal from Philadelphia. “There’s times that I’ve caught myself poking him with my elbow and saying, ‘Look at this, look at this,’” Marotta says. “Because just for a fraction of a second, I’ve forgotten that Fred can’t see.” Noesner, 64, uses a cane or his Seeing Eye dog to get around. Born with malignant tumors of the retina, he lost his eyesight completely in childhood. A heck of a thing for a good friend to forget, right? Or maybe not, once you understand how completely Noesner has refused to let his blindness quell his adventurous nature. With the support of family and friends, he has not only jumped out of an airplane but also climbed one of the tallest mountains in the United States under perilous conditions. “He’s done so much with his life,” says his colleague Jennifer Hoffmaster. “It’s that fearlessness. He is a risk-taker.” Lions are partially to thank for two of the most recent and most rewarding risks Noesner has taken: getting married and authoring a book. Flip the calendar back to the 1950s, to Noesner’s childhood in Union, New Jersey. As young Frederick’s mother was walking him to kindergarten on the first day of school, she started chatting with another mother. The Noesners and the other family, the Hirdes, including their daughter Margarete, soon became close, spending holidays and vacations together for many years. Somewhere along the way, Margarete’s father, Max, noticed that the blind youngster needed a way to write things down that was faster and more efficient than the slate-and-stylus tools co-invented by Louis Braille in the 19th century. Max persuaded his Lions club to present Noesner with the best technology available at the time, a typewriter-like device for the blind known as a Braille writer. “What a wonderful gift that was,” says Noesner. While he has long since exchanged the Braille writer for more modern technology such as a talking computer, that gesture by the Lions “was the beginning of my learning to love to write,” he says. For several decades, that love laid dormant. After graduating from college in 1969, Noesner was unable to find a job in the field of his greatest passion—history. Instead, he spent most of his career working in various capacities for organizations for the blind including the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Along the way, he got the chance to participate in the adventure of a lifetime in 1981: climbing formidable Mount Rainier in Washington. “I learned that there was a gentleman who wanted to find people with disabilities to climb Rainier,” Noesner recalls. “There were 11 of us. One was an Army Ranger who had lost a leg, one was an epileptic, two had lost their hearing, and seven of us couldn’t see.” Guided by James Whittaker, the first American to summit Mount Everest, the group successfully climbed the mountain, taking along a flag that they afterward presented to then-President Reagan. “It was a blessed, wonderful day,” Noesner says, despite the icefall that came within a few hundred feet of killing him and the rest of his rope team. The journey was chronicled in the HBO film “To Climb A Mountain.” On the trip, Noesner confessed to his Army Ranger companion that he’d always wanted to jump out of an airplane. “If that’s what you want to do, do it!” the Ranger told Noesner. “Rangers jump at night. We don’t know what we’re coming down on, either.” So, soon afterward, he did. “I thought there’d be a sense of falling,” Noesner says. “But once the chute opens, you feel like you’re in cotton, kind of. I remember when I was about to jump out, the instructor yelled in my ear, ‘Don’t worry about landing! Everybody lands!’” Despite his adventures, Noesner eventually was nagged by the thought that something was missing from his life. By Christmas of 2000, he had realized that “I was most unhappy,” as he puts it. Walking outside one day in wintry weather, he found himself thinking about how he and his childhood friend Margarete had once played together in the snow. “I thought, ‘I should send her a note,’” he says. So he did. She wrote back, and romance bloomed. On Dec. 26, 2004, they married in a fairytale ceremony in Philadelphia’s famous City Tavern, an establishment once frequented by John Adams, Paul Revere and other historic Americans. A lifelong colonial history buff, Noesner—along with his bride, the rest of the wedding party and many of the guests—dressed in clothing accurate to the period. “He was happier than I’d seen him in a while,” says Marotta, who served as best man. No, Max, Margarete’s Lion father, was not alive to attend the wedding. “But maybe he arranged it from up high. We don’t know,” Noesner says with a smile. Without a doubt, Max’s generosity toward Noesner lives on. Half a century after Lions sparked the love of writing in a young blind boy by giving him a Braille writer, their gift bore fruit in 2010 in the form of Noesner’s self-published book, “The Fortunate Ones: 18th-Century Philadelphia As Seen Without Sight.” Based on a true historical incident, the novel tells the tale of a gunsmith who loses his sight in an explosion during colonial times. The book is a byproduct of Noesner’s return to his first professional love, history. He now works seasonally as a historical reenactor in the courtyard of Philadelphia’s Betsy Ross House, making powder horns and answering questions from visitors with his Seeing Eye dog, Juniper, by his side. “I had heard about him, and I couldn’t imagine how a blind man could do this kind of work,” says Hoffmaster, who supervises Noesner at Historic Philadelphia, Inc. “Then I met him, and he was just absolutely amazing. He knows so much, and he’s very approachable. Nothing holds him back.”
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