COTTAGE GROVE – Noah Wemple was only 15 when he lost his father, Edd, who died of a sudden aneurysm at age 37. Since that time, Father’s Day has been immensely important to him, because in those 15 short years, Edd helped Noah make a remarkable discovery.
That he could make a difference in this world.
And boy, did he ever.
The tragedy about it all, is that Noah’s life has been cut short, too. He was working up on Cougar Mountain Farm tilling his garden – doing what he loves to do – on Father’s Day, no less, when he collapsed and died suddenly of natural causes. No autopsy was performed, but the family was told that he likely suffered a heart attack or died from a blood clot. He had just turned 53 in May.
Noah’s 18-year-old son, Zen, who just graduated from Cottage Grove High School two weeks ago, found his father lying in the garden next to his roto-tiller.
“I was preparing for Father’s Day,” Noah’s ex-wife, Anna Wemple, who remained close friends with him, said during a gathering at Cougar Mountain Farm on Sunday along with Noah’s daughter, Zarah, his sister, Laura Wemple, and his mother, Betsy Hartzell.
“I was up at my place, and Zarah and Zen were on their way. We were going to have batting practice and hit softballs because Noah wanted us all to hit home runs. I was making food and they were gone for a minute and I got a call and it was Zen saying, ‘I can’t wake Dad up – get down here immediately!’
“He was lying next to his tiller and Zen had gone down to help all the EMTs who were arriving. They did their thing, and they were not able to revive him – and thankfully, we were able to spend several hours with him before the funeral home came,” Anna said.
“To have us all here and all connected was good closure for us. I don’t think any of us had any loose ends, no ‘not-knowings.’ We were all here. It was hard for it to happen on Father’s Day, but also it was really good circumstances, we were all there. There were no distractions.”
Anna is trained in CPR and tried for quite a while to revive him.
“I was never able to find a pulse, but he did have a shallow, rhythmic breath,” she said. “I just think he probably had a head rush and died suddenly. The roto-tiller was still running; the first thing Zen said on the phone was that his eyes were glossed over. He wasn’t there.”
When Noah wasn’t planting trees or working on the farm, he was an event planner, and his big annual event, the Tayberry Jam: Reggae on the Mountain festival, which had been scheduled to begin one month from today, on July 29, had already been scrapped because one of the headlining bands was not corresponding, plus there were other issues, and Wemple thought it was too tough of a task to get a new headline act and change all of the advertising on short notice.
“Noah liked reggae, but he was politically motivated so he liked music that called for cultural change or justice,” Anna said. “When we were young we listened to Bob Dylan constantly because it was revolutionary music and he always talked about social justice.”
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Noah had it sort of rough growing up in his early years – although he would probably say he was lucky to have the upbringing that he had.
“Noah was 2 when his father and I bought the land,” Betsy said of the undeveloped mountain property just east of Saginaw. “We came up with no electricity, no water, no systems, kind of young … idealistic, you might say, with a rugged dream. His father had started working with Hoedads, planting trees, which was a cooperative venture that gave him hope that it would be a powerful place for us to take off from the others.”
He was right.
In the 70s, Edd Wemple was one of the founding members of Hoedads Inc., which would soon become a multimillion-dollar company. At their peak in the late 1970s, Hoedads Inc. had nearly 250 members, with yearly profits topping $6 million annually. During the company’s 24-year existence, roughly 3,000 men and women planted millions of trees as Hoedad co-op workers.
Betsy has been owner and operator of the iconic Kalapuya Books used books and art store on Main Street in Cottage Grove for over 25 years along with her second husband, Hal, who was also a tree planter in his youth. He planted a million trees, and has authored two books about trees, including one about the formative years of the Hoedads reforestation business.
So you might say Noah hasn’t ventured too far away from the family tree. According to Anna, Noah has planted well over a half-million trees, and maybe closer to a million.
“He was the strongest, hardest worker I’ve ever met, and he was a total legend in every crew he worked in,” she said. “Pound for pound, I’ve never seen a stronger man. He was so fearless that my favorite word for him was that he was intrepid. I always felt safe with him, it didn’t matter how bad (things) got, he would carry me on his back for 10 miles if he had to.”
Zarah amplified her mom’s point, recalling the time when Noah took both kids on a camping trip to Alaska.
“He has this epic picture of us looking over the ocean,” said Zarah, who graduated from the University of Oregon last Tuesday with a political science major. “We hiked to this point and stayed the night with no gear. I was 11 and Zen was 7, and we were staying in the crack of a rock. We had to stay on the rock because there were bears below the rocks. But it was fun. We felt safe because we knew he would take care of us, no matter what.”
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Growing up, Noah moved to Eugene during his teens and early 20s, and attended Lincoln Junior High School, Churchill High School and Lane Community College. He was good in school, and was especially good in every sport he played.
“He played goalie in soccer and nobody ever scored against him,” his mother said. “Kids would be so frustrated playing against him.”
But playing in adult softball leagues was his true passion.
“He ran like a gazelle. Every at-bat he would crush the ball over the fence, as if that was what you were supposed to do,” Anna said. “It would just be crush, crush, crush, one after the other. You can ask anybody, Noah Wemple is a local legend in Eugene softball.”
A while back, Noah was asked about his biggest sports fantasy, and he said it would be to play on the same team with both of his kids, and to have Zen hit a monster home run.
That fantasy actually came true last month.
“Zen hasn’t hit a lot of home runs, but he got up and crushed the longest home run anyone had ever seen,” Anna said. “It went to the backstop of the other field. It was the distance of two fields. Noah was there watching, yelling, ‘That’s my son!’”
Noah always had an ultra-competitive nature. There were times when some family members would have been OK with him turning down the intensity level.
“Noah didn’t let you win at anything, you had to beat him, you had to prove you were better than him,” said Laura, the middle sibling of the family, 6 years younger than Noah, and 4 years older than brother Alex. “Part of that is that everybody was expected to bring their best face, their ‘A’ game. You would never go into something half-heartedly, so why would he ever let you win, even if you’re 10 years younger than him. You should feel that accomplishment and earn that win. Our dad was the same way. It flavored a lot of his life. Having his dad die young affected the way he lived his life so intensely.”
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Even though the Tayberry Jam was canceled, there will be a Celebration of Life for Noah on the same weekend, July 28-29, beginning on Saturday the 29th at 2 p.m. Camping is encouraged, and sourdough pancakes will be served on Saturday. RSVP if you are able to volunteer. Anna (text) 541-870-0908 or Kalapuya Books 541-942-6143.
The family is asking everyone who attends to tell a story about how Noah affected their life, or to speak about their shared experiences.
“Noah was the guy at every funeral, wedding, or birthday party who got up and said the best things about that person,” Anna said. “He impacted people so powerfully – so now it’s everybody else’s turn – for the community to express their love for him. He would feel so honored if everyone did that.”
She also hopes to emphasize his theme of sustainable living.
“It’s all about getting back to how we can live closer to the planet, and creating community systems that support that, moving away from the disposable culture and toward self-reliance and community reliance and living close to nature and close to the land,” Anna said.
“Moving back to renewable energies, and all the things we can do to help save the planet. He was all about this event being an educational experience for people, and exposure to that as well as a celebration.
“His legacy is creating a model of how to live close to nature.”
Noah always wanted to honor his dad, after having to say goodbye to him at age 37.
“37 was the number Dad used for all of his sports jerseys; whenever he needed a number for anything, that was his special number,” Zarah said. “He just died 37 years and 6 months to the day after his dad died, and on Father’s Day, and his father died on Dec. 18, which is 3 days before the winter solstice, and he just died June 18, 3 days before the summer solstice on Father’s Day, which was such an important day to him, because he loved his father so much.
“As his kids, we always loved to be around him because he was celebrating his father’s memory. It’s comforting. So now, Father’s Day, of course, is going to be even more special to us.”