Rarely has a debt of gratitude been so fully repaid. In 1972, in the midst of a growing and already distinguished career in law and politics, Noel was sworn in as governor of Rhode Island.
Noel’s Democratic inclinations had deep roots. His mom and dad were children of Italian and Quebec immigrants respectively. She worked in the jewelry industry and he was an auto mechanic. Together in then-rural Warwick they raised the chickens, vegetables and grapes that fed the family. Phil himself was a successful commercial fisherman before he was old enough to drive his catch to market. As a teenager he was a member of the Laborers’ Union.
But his performance in school soon showed he was destined to go well beyond fishing and laboring. At Samuel Gorton High School he was a straight A student and named to the Rhode Island Honor Society. He was popular and already demonstrating nascent political skills, being elected class president for three years. And he was an extraordinary athlete, playing football, basketball and baseball, captain the football team for two years and earning all-state honors. It was his all-state status in football that got the attention of college coaches and led to a combined scholastic and athletic scholarship to Georgetown.
His choice of Georgetown was somewhat fraught. The university dropped football in 1952, well before Noel was willing to give up the sport. But, on the bright side, that led him to return to the state where he was to thrive professionally and politically when he transferred to Brown.
He majored in economics and played football at a level impressive enough to reach the Green Bay Packers. Unfortunately, however, an injury ended his football career.
This disappointing end in football was consoled by his marriage to Joyce Anne Sandberg, Miss Rhode Island of 1953–certainly a fitting chapter in what was becoming a story-book career. The Noels would eventually have five children and eight grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In 1960, three years after finishing law school and having set up a law practice in Warwick, he started fulfilling his political commitment to Senator Pastore. He ran as the Democratic candidate for the City Council from the then heavily Republican Fifth Ward and won the first of his three terms on the Council. In 1966 he was elected Mayor of Warwick. Among his accomplishments during his three terms as mayor were bringing the Rhode Island Mall and the Warwick Mall to the city.
“If you’re a public servant, you try to make things better for people,” he said at the time. “Better education, better opportunities, better health care. But it takes money to do that and you have to have a diverse tax base to support that kind of activity. I focused on a diverse tax base in order to provide better jobs and services without putting too much of a burden on the homeowner.”
In 1972 he was nominated to run for governor as a distinct underdog to Herbert F. DeSimone, a former State Attorney General and assistant U.S. secretary of transportation. He won by 22,638 votes. For years later, he was reelected with nearly 80 percent of the votes cast.
The 1974 landslide reflected great satisfaction with the governor’s performance. The state’s economy had been bludgeoned when the Nixon Administration closed three naval bases, causing unemployment levels to soar above those in the Great Depression. But ironically it was a naval construction program that led to one of Noel’s first major economic triumphs.
While campaigning for governor, he had visited the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corporation, the Groton Connecticut, the employer of thousands of Rhode Islanders. While there he leaned that the company faced a serious problem. There was not enough room at the shipyard on the banks of the Thames River to build the new and enormous Trident class submarine. The company was considering constructing another shipyard further upriver to build Trident hull sections and then bring them downriver by barge for assembly.
Noel had a better idea. Why not build those hull sections at the now abandoned Navy facilities at Quonset Point? It would be faster and less expensive to do that and then barge them 40 miles down the coast to the Groton shipyard. The company accepted the idea, creating thousands of high paying jobs in Rhode Island.
After his election, Noel formed a coalition of business, industry and labor and developed the most sweeping package of economic development legislation in the state’s history. The entire system of taxing business was modernized, and a comprehensive training program was established to guarantee new industries and trained work force when the located in Rhode Island.
Taking an idea from his 1972 opponent, the governor created the Department of Economic Development, raising economic concerns to the cabinet level and enabling the state to compete with any other state in attracting new business and industry. The governor created the Rhode Island Port Authority and Development Corporation to take title to abandoned Navy land and facilities and to acquire other land for industrial development. He created the Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Corporation to provide low and middle-income families with decent housing and the opportunity to own their own homes. This agency also financed thousands of housing units for the elderly.
As governor, Noel served as chairman of the New England Regional Commission, as a member of the Executive Committee of the National Governors’ Conference, as a member of the Democratic National Committee, as the acting chairman of the National Democratic Party’s Platform Committee and in June, 1975, he was elected chairman of the Democratic Governor’s Conference.
In 1974, with Senator Pastore’s blessing, Phil Noel went bipartisan, joining a distinguished continent of government leaders accompanying President Richard M. Nixon’s historic mission to the People’s Republic of China, a major step in the normalization of relations between the two countries.
One year later he was appointed by President Gerald Ford to serve on the National Council of Intergovernmental Relations, an agency created by Congress to study and recommend methods to promote greater efficiency in government through more effective cooperation between government entities in the municipal, county, state and federal levels.
After leaving office in 1977, Governor Noel devoted his energies to practicing law and developing several businesses. His companies drilled oil wells and operated oil services in the South and developed commercial real estate with properties in Louisiana, Texas and Florida. They built more than 2,000 apartment units and five states and operated marinas and restaurants on Block Island. One of their most visible Rhode Island businesses is the Harbor Lights Marina on Warwick Neck which includes a golf course, marina, swimming pool and banquet facility.
He continued to practice law until retiring as a senior partner from Holland & Knight, a national law firm. He chaired the Marine Advisory Council of the University of Rhode Island and the Coalition for Community Development, which played a major role in the renaissance of the City of Provident. He holds honorary degrees from the University of Rhode Island, Johnson & Wales College, St Francis College and the New England Institute of Technology and serves on the boards of directors of several corporations.