Tough Love

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How to sum up a lifetime? I want to yell about the unfairness of losing someone who was so vital and energetic to a disease that causes your body to waste away, yet leaves your mind intact. ALS seems a particularly cruel disease for someone like Noel Mermer. He was such a vital force in my life and in so many other’s lives for so many years. He was the guy who showed up in a coat and tie early in the morning and worked late into the evening and all weekend long, with endless rounds of golf and fishing trips along the way. He was the conservative to my liberal. He was a pain in my ass and also my biggest cheerleader.

We started the Charleston City Paper in August of 1997 with a crew of four — me, Noel, Blair Barna, and our art director Andrea Haseley. We worked side by side to build the paper and boy did we have fun. We worked incredibly hard, we barely paid ourselves a living wage, and we partied hard as we celebrated our success. Blair remembers him as being driven, determined and hard-working, a person who threw his heart into everything he did:

“Like a true leader, he made those around him better, getting the most out of everyone he worked with. He could be hard to keep up with — but inspired you to take chances, push boundaries and give it your all. And he gave everything his all. Noel epitomized work hard, play hard before I even knew that phrase existed.” 

The City Paper’s first year is so vivid still, all these years later. The memories have been flooding back as I reflect on the time we spent together. One particular memory I have is of my first pregnancy. Within months of starting the paper, I discovered I was pregnant and was terrified to tell Noel, worried that he’d be disappointed and disapproving because the timing was not ideal, and we didn’t necessarily have the resources for one of us to be out for an extended maternity leave. His reaction was nothing but happy and positive. I felt such relief and realized that we would take this unexpected development in stride, and this baby would be incorporated into the City Paper family just like every new employee was as we went along. Noel and our son Jack had a special bond from the get-go.

We saw that love for family in Noel again and again. We were his family for years and then he met his wife Christine, and Noel finally realized his dream of having children of his own. The qualities that made him such a great publisher and leader of our crew of misfit toys made him such a good dad too. He was tough and disciplined but caring and supportive. He was rock solid and dependable, able to navigate problems and figure out solutions. As Blair said, “He was more than a boss, he was like a father figure to many of the employees at the City Paper over the years — tough when he needed to be, but at the same time fiercely loyal and supportive.” 

He was used to being that guy. He lost his own father when he was a young man and became a rock for his mother and sister, who he was incredibly close to. That loss at such a young age made him into the man he was. I imagine the thought of leaving his sons at a similar age haunted him. I expect they will become strong men who know how to support and lead others like their dad did. He and Christine have built a foundation for them to be able to thrive despite such a devastating loss. 

As the news spread on social media after his passing, reading testimonies from lifelong high school friends, former employees and even tenants in the house he rented on Coming Street, one thing became clear: Noel was generous with his time and attention. He gave people experiences, opportunities and help when they needed it. He was fun and always upbeat. He doled out hilarious nicknames that stuck. He organized legendary parties. He was a loving nephew. He was truly one in a million.

Even though we knew the inevitably of ALS’ progression, Noel’s passing hits hard. I’m grateful that he was such an integral part of my adult life. He leaves a positive legacy behind — in his boys, in the ongoing success of the City Paper and in all the lives he impacted along the way. Rest in peace, Noel. 

Stephanie Barna was the founding editor of Charleston City Paper.