Living history

John Nopel

John Nopel

Photo By Tom Angel

When people want to know a bit of Butte County history, be it Bidwell basics or the most obscure of Chico facts, they talk to John Nopel.

“I get those calls all the time,” Nopel shrugged. “I like to share if I have the information that people are looking for.”

Nopel, 87, is retired from his public life as an associate superintendent of Butte County schools, but you wouldn’t know it from his social and business calendar. He speaks to historical societies, consults on books and is counted among the most significant donors of historic photos to Chico State University. Just last week, a man doing a history project came all the way to Chico from Felton and spoke with Nopel about the SS John Bidwell, leaving a picture of the World War II “liberty ship.”

Nopel proudly pulls out a volume that defines the words “rare book.” He sought “Butte County Illustrations” for 25 years and paid a pretty penny when he found it. A milk bottle from the Rancho Chico Dairy stands out from a row, and Nopel has sales slips from Bidwell’s general store—even a letter written by Bidwell himself. And he has binders full of old pictures. These things don’t fall into his lap, Nopel cautioned. “You’ve got to get out and look for them—kind of like trying to catch a fish.”

Nopel became friends with the late Ted Meriam, revered as a good man and a dedicated Chico historian, 75 years ago when the younger boy joined the Boy Scout troop Meriam was in.

When Meriam died Aug. 5 at the age of 91, Nopel joked warmly, “He left me in a heck of a spot.” Four decades ago, he explains, “there was quite a group of us here in Chico who were interested in Chico’s old history,” he said. “All of those guys are gone now except old John here.”

Although Nopel’s parents and grandparents called Butte County home, his dad did a stonecutting stint down south, so Nopel didn’t move to Chico until 1919, at the ripe old age of 5. The family ran a grocery store on The Esplanade, where young Nopel met a wide range of people and cultivated his interest in days gone by.

Nopel became a teacher and taught for many of his 38 years in education, even starting the Hooker Oak School. Nopel himself attended Chico’s first public school, Chico Vecino School, at Oleander and East Third Avenue.

“He’s certainly a hero of mine,” said Jerry McGuire, the current Butte County superintendent of schools, who calls upon his friend Nopel when no one can remember “when did this happen and why.” McGuire treasures the collection of photographs of local schools that Nopel donated for display at the county office. Also, the John Nopel Instructional Media Center is named in his honor.

Nopel, who still has occasion to teach Chico High School students about history, said it’s not that today’s generations aren’t interested in the town’s past; it’s just “there are too many other things going on” in modern life to allow the time.

Perhaps what is clearest in talking with him is that much of what Nopel knows, he knows by heart—literally. His motivation, Nopel said, has always been “just a desire to know more.”

The office wall at Nopel’s Chico home, where he lives with his wife of 62 years, Penny, is papered with the past: a yellowed Chico Record, a Bidwell Mansion tour brochure, honors from numerous historical societies, a more-modern Chico Heat ticket. And, of course, his Eagle Scout certificate.