When more than 200 people packed the ballroom of the Tiger Hotel on Saturday to commemorate the life of Wendy Noren, it was like they were voting with their feet.
“One of the ways we can tell about her public life is the people who cared enough to come and to honor her at this celebration,” said former Boone County Clerk Chris Kelly, who hired Noren as deputy clerk in 1978.
Guests from both coasts, including U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, former Gov. Jay Nixon, Tom Hicks from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and state auditor Nicole Galloway, elected to be there, as many of them had supported Noren in her decades-long tenure as an internationally recognized elections expert, voting access advocate and a seasoned Boone County Clerk. As they poured in, songs from the Turner Classic movies Noren loved provided a soundtrack.
Twenty minutes in, it was standing room only. Latecomers gathered in the hallway outside the ballroom to listen.
Noren, 63, died at home March 11 from cancer.
Noren was elected Boone County Clerk in 1982, winning eight re-elections until she resigned in June because of her declining health. Her elections expertise would take the Jefferson City native around the country and world; she twice served as an international elections observer in Europe before she was appointed to be a representative to the National Association of Counties’ advisory board to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission in 2004. She also served as the legislative chair for the Missouri Association of County Clerks & Election Authorities, and she earned numerous awards for her commitment to the election process and voter access.
Many of those awards, along with a slew of nostalgic items — a Hillary Clinton figurine, a recipe for pear tarts, New Yorker magazines — garnished tables that ran nearly the length of the room.
The ballroom was its own memorial, a testament to two of the lives Noren held dear. During the annual True/False Film Fest, which Noren regularly attended, Ragtag Cinema rechristened the ballroom “Forrest Theater,” after Noren’s former husband, local musician and journalist Forrest Rose. Long before that, in 1935, Missourians gathered in the ballroom to begin what would become the Missouri Department of Conservation, to which Noren’s father, Carl Raymond Noren, dedicated his career.
Noren’s friends, family members and colleagues each offered a snapshot of her life, from her high school days spent driving a used highway patrol car she’d dubbed the Batmobile — this story courtesy of Georganne Nixon, former first lady of Missouri and Noren’s lifelong friend — to her more recent moments, mixing a pot of pasta while lying in bed on her final vacation (she could barely walk by then) because her brother, David, just couldn’t do it right.
“We came to accept that her intensity was an inseparable part of her life,” Nixon said. “Wendy would do it her way, and if that meant she sacrificed sleep for time on task, then that was exactly what she wanted.”
Paul DeGregorio, former director of elections for St. Louis County, and Conny McCormack, former Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, spoke about Noren’s work as an election official.
“Wendy Noren put Boone County and Missouri on the map in so many positive ways. We all wanted to be like Wendy,” DeGregorio said. “She was a person of the highest integrity and ethics and always got the best bang for the buck for taxpayers.”
Colleen Coble, CEO of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and Noren’s dear friend, spoke of Noren’s ability to be the exact friend people needed her to be, her tendency to not suffer fools, her perennially moving hands, and her deep love for the ocean.
Noren would conjure up a joyful memory in her life at the crest of each wave, according to McCormack. Coble encouraged those present to carry forward that practice:
“The next time we’re at a beach and those waves are coming in, and we think of every joyful moment and every good thing, we’ve already got the first one named, and that’s, ‘I was a friend of Wendy Noren.’”