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AT HOME WITH NOEL AND ELIZABETH STOOKEY
April 3, 2003

NORTHFIELD - Elizabeth Stookey writes a weekly sermon as part of her job as chaplain at the Northfield Mount Hermon school. When her husband, Noel, is not on the road (he's the "Paul" of Peter, Paul, and Mary), she likes to run it by him. She sits at her desk in her small office in Oaknoll, the chaplain's residence, while he stretches out on the window seat a few feet away and mulls his critique. It is usually about style rather than substance, he says, and "she listens to me."

This is part of the latest chapter in a marriage that has lasted 40 years, and it is fitting because Betty, as her friends call her, has often been the first person to hear Noel's new songs. In a career spanning more than four decades, he has written classics like "The Wedding Song" (for Peter Yarro and his then-bride Marybeth McCarthy), "El Salvador," and "I Dig Rock and Roll Music."

To get an idea of how long Noel Stookey has been in the public eye, consider that this summer, Peter, Paul, and Mary are releasing a boxed set (their "Puff the Magic Dragon" and Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," which they popularized, are sure to be on it) and a DVD featuring appearances on "The Jack Benny Show" and "What's My Line" - big television programs in the 1950s and '60s.

Elizabeth, 64, was a year behind Noel, 65, in high school in Birmingham, Mich. She was a cheerleader and he sang in a band called "The Birds of Paradise." She was more aware of him than he was of her.

"I had a terrible crush on him. I thought he was terrific," she recalled during an interview in which she playfully jumped into her husband's lap at the merest prompting.

The couple didn't get together, though, until a chance encounter in a New York City subway station. He had gone on to Michigan State, where he didn't quite finish his degree, then to Philadelphia and then to New York. He traded his Kay electric guitar for a Martin acoustic and, with native New Yorkers Mary Travers and Peter Yarrow, was becoming a sensation on the folk music scene. (Their manager, Albert Grossman, who also handled Dylan at the time, suggested Noel's name change, for reasons of alliteration, not as a Biblical reference, said Noel. He took "Paul" as a middle name and the decision has had the added benefit of helping each member of the group maintain their individual identities as performers. They were otherwise slated to be "The Willows.")

When they re-met, Elizabeth was finishing a degree at Columbia University in philosophy and comparative literature. She put her career aspirations on hold when the couple started having children.

"I had always thought that if you are going to have children, you should spend some time with them rather than giving them over to other people to raise," she said. The young family moved from the city to the northern suburbs.

After Noel became a born-again Christian, they moved to Blue Hill, Maine, in 1973 to raise their three daughters in the country. Noel stopped touring with Yarrow and Travers for the rest of the decade. (The trio now does more than 30 performances a year.)

When the children were grown, Elizabeth, who had been teaching French at a local prep school, needed a new challenge. "I knew what I didn't want to do was to sit around Maine and join the bloody Mary book club," she said. So the couple moved to Cambridge for four years while Elizabeth attended Harvard Divinity School.

After a year as the chaplain's intern at Smith College, she landed her current job at Northfield Mount Hermon School. Noel became an artist in residence there for one year, and he still plays guitar and sings for his wife's Sunday services.

They aren't sure what the next phase of their lives will be. For now, Noel Stookey's dozen or so gold and platinum records hang in a hallway of the chaplain's residence at a school in Western Massachusetts. The couple spends holidays in Blue Hill, where they expect to end up again some day.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

(413) 835-1248 - eric.goldscheider@gmail.com