William Noakes, '82: "Life's Not a Straight Line"

It’s fitting that Bill Noakes, ’82, finds himself today as executive vice president of Meijer, Inc., a position he’s held for six years. Meijer’s 170-plus “superstores” throughout the Midwest contain just about everything a consumer could want, from groceries to lawn furniture, auto parts to pets, and Noakes’s career contains just about everything a lawyer could do, from small firms to big ones, commercial law to government service, corporate counsel to the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General Department. What’s more, just as Meijer operates “grocery stores” that also sell lots of other items, Noakes isn’t only Meijer’s general counsel—he’s the chief information officer, too, and he’s involved in quite a few other aspects of corporate leadership.

When Noakes was about seven years old, he read a biography of Thomas Jefferson, and saw there a kindred spirit, someone else whose interests ranged far. Since Jefferson was a lawyer, Noakes announced that he was going to become one, too. His father, a career Air Force sergeant, thought not, telling his son, “There aren’t any Negro lawyers.” His father recommended a career as a CPA, a prospect that filled the younger Noakes with such dread that he decided, no matter what the odds, it would be lawyering for him.

Were it not for Dean Richard Badger, Noakes might not have become a University of Chicago lawyer. And his personal style might have been different, too. As an undergraduate at Notre Dame, Noakes applied only to Notre Dame’s law school and the University of Chicago. Having been accepted at Notre Dame but not yet having heard from Chicago, he wrote to the director of admissions saying, in effect, that Chicago would be missing out on a very dedicated student if it didn’t take him. He recalled, “As soon as I mailed it I thought, ‘What have I done? They’re going to think I’m nuts.’” On the contrary, Badger was impressed with the young man’s spunk and expedited his acceptance.

“I learned something important from that,” Noakes recalled. “To say what you want politely and directly is a lot better than just hoping people will somehow figure out what you want and respect it. It’s an approach I’ve practiced throughout my career.”

Being at the Law School changed his life. “We had the best faculty on the planet. Giants like Ed Levi, Walter Blum, and Bernie Meltzer, and young Turks who would become giants, like Richard Epstein and Geof Stone. And the students! Brilliant minds everywhere you turned.” After his first year, he worked nearly full-time every week at a four-person firm where, he recalled, “I got some great tutelage in how the legal system really works.” Restless as his mind was, even all that wasn’t enough for him: he acquired a master’s degree in public policy before he graduated from the Law School.

After that, it was one rich experience after another. Five years with the Air Force JAG and a stint at the SEC preceded his decision to accept an offer to join the legal staff at General Motors. In 1992 he left GM for a Detroit firm. He served as vice-chairman of Dennis Archer’s successful campaign for the Detroit mayoralty in 1993. Jennifer Granholm, now Michigan’s governor, asked him to work as her deputy in the Wayne County corporation counsel’s office in 1995. In 1997 he became general counsel of a minority-owned automotive supplier, and did some commentary on the “Court TV” television channel. Federal independent prosecutor Donald Smaltz caught one of Noakes’s TV appearances, made inquiries, and wound up inviting Noakes to come to Washington DC to handle the trial of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. Noakes did so, not without misgivings because the investigation had been completed and the strategy was set before he arrived in July for a trial involving 39 counts and over 70 witnesses that was scheduled to begin in September. “I gave it my best shot,” Noakes says, “and I think we could have won with a different strategy, but we didn’t.” 

“I was disappointed,” Noakes added about that verdict, “but disappointment is just another form of learning. Life’s not a straight line, and if it was, I’d be bored to tears.”  There’s plenty in his life right now to save him from boredom: in addition to his many-hatted job at Meijer, he teaches an ethics course at Michigan State’s law school, he participates in Grand Rapids civic organizations, he’s starting a term on the Law School’s Visiting Committee, and his wife gave birth in September to their son, Gian. “I’ve met a lot of very nice CPAs in my life,” he said, “but I couldn’t be happier than to be right where I am, and I wouldn’t be right where I am if it weren’t for the University of  Chicago.”