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The Doorway to the Future

Posted Dec. 26, 2012

The door to the original Noble Research Institute offices in downtown Ardmore, Okla.

There's a picture of a door that you've likely never seen. Even if you had stumbled across it, the faded black-and-white print probably didn't leave much of an impression.

The snapshot - one of the earliest photographs in our organizational history - shows the door to the original Noble Research Institute offices in downtown Ardmore, Okla. There's no one in the photo, no face to recognize. It's just the door with its whitewashed wood frame, rippled glass window and brass fixtures.

If "Noble Research Institute" wasn't stenciled on the front in bold black letters, you'd swear the door would open to a 1940s-era private investigator's office or a newsroom filled with clanking typewriters.

But for Boyd Howell, this door led to a career and a future. More than 60 years later, he'd encounter that door in the most unexpected place.

Each fall, the Noble Research Institute retirees migrate back to campus for a special luncheon in their honor. They spend a few hours sharing food and fellowship. They swap stories about old friends and new grandchildren. They roll out inside jokes with long forgotten origins.

This event has become one of my favorites. Standing in one room are the men and women responsible for building our organization. They embody greatness and grace. They wrote our lore. They are a living legacy. They are Noble's equivalent of the 1928 Yankees.

As part of the festivities, we award prizes. This year, we printed several striking posters of current and historical images - including the original Noble door. With each drawing, the winner collected their prize and received a little teasing from the audience for their victory.

When the poster of the door was awarded, Howell's name came out and, as the applause subsided, he said, "This is perfect. I walked through that door more times than I can count."

I stopped cold. I had never considered that someone in the audience would have actually used that door. The organization moved to its current campus east of town in the early 1950s. Our campus is Noble's home base, but not for everyone.

After the event, I sidled up to Howell and his wife, Margaret, for more details. Sweet memories poured out of them like warm honey.

Howell was about 19 years old when he began working for the Noble Research Institute. Fresh out of high school, he was hungry to support his ailing mother and forge a life with his high school sweetheart. He snatched up the opportunity to become a research technician in the biomedical division just five years after the organization's establishment. "I didn't know it at the time," Howell said. "But that was the doorway to my future."

The years sped by like thumbing through a deck of cards. Howell served in the military during the Korean War, married Margaret and together they raised two children. When he needed to finalize a college degree to advance his career, the Noble Research Institute leadership rearranged his work schedule. Soon, 42 years had slipped by, and a career that began at an old wooden door had ended.

Howell retired in 1993; I had just received my learner's permit.

Age should truly divide Howell and me, but we're linked by a common "Noble" story. When I think of the opportunities I'm afforded today, I am thankful for all those who came before.

They are the men and women who have spent the better part of seven decades building this organization from a small foundation focused on two Oklahoma counties to an internationally renowned research institution.

They are the innovators and the guardians of our founder's original idea. They are the true heroes of our story. They are Boyd Howell and all our retirees.

I hope to work hard enough to justify the inheritance they afforded me. I hope to add my own portion and make them proud. I hope that when I see that next door, I can walk through it boldly because, like Howell, you never know where it's going to lead.