Mr. Noe’s First-Hand Account of the Spanish Flu in Comparison to the Coronavirus


It has been almost 103 short years since Head of School Bernie Noe faced the gravity of a pandemic first-hand. Growing up amid the 1918 influenza pandemic, the terrors of a deadly virus are not new to him—Mr. Noe has experienced many pandemics throughout his lifetime. Being born shortly after the Black Death, going on to live through the Spanish Flu, and finally, the coronavirus, Mr. Noe feels that he is well equipped to guide the Lakeside community through its adjustment to life in a pandemic. 

The Spanish Flu, the deadliest pandemic in recent history, was a time of great tragedy and fear—things that Mr. Noe says are mirrored in the recent coronavirus. In an immersive conversation, Mr. Noe compared his experiences with both pandemics and revealed some interesting parallels. 

The interview started off with a question to Mr. Noe about his thoughts on the similarities between the two pandemics. Noe says the similarities are undeniable. “The biggest similarity between the two was the fact that no one knew anything about them. All of a sudden, people were getting sick, and we hadn’t seen anything like it before. People came to my mother asking advice, as she had experience with these kinds of sicknesses, having been alive during the bubonic plague pandemic.” 

When asked about the similar aspects socially, Noe responded, “Each experience offered its unique challenges, but the rise of the influenza epidemic definitely tapped into my developmental years,” Noe says, “Back then, the only way to socialize was through carrier pigeon—there was no email or texting. I was on my own.” In a world where Twitter and Instagram dominate the social lives of teens, many assumed that the youth of 1918 communicated through Facebook—or something equally ancient—but Noe says Facebook was something he only discovered well into his 80s and with the help of his grandchildren. “Youngsters these days are afforded the ability to connect with each other even amid the pandemic—a luxury I was deprived of. [My life] changed drastically.” 

Despite the negative aspects of the pandemics, Noe says that in both situations, those with privilege were able to make the most of their experience (if they had not passed away). His childhood friend, Tommy, killed time by creating sources of light and eventually inventing the “lightbulb.” His upstairs neighbor nicknamed “Big Guy” figured out how to turn water into wine—like the current pandemic, the Spanish flu inspired an unseen creativity and an abundance of time for those who could afford it. 

“Both pandemics should be addressed with care and caution,” Noe states, “and it’s disappointing that we could have avoided all of this.” Holding in his hand a Blackberry, a device used in ancient times, Principal Bernie Noe sighs. “There’s no doubt that both of these pandemics greatly impacted peoples’ lives, in different ways. The loss that has occurred cannot be overstated—but there is still hope. The Spanish Flu ended in two years—we can only hope that the coronavirus pandemic, like me, is approaching its own retirement.”