A Tribute to Professor Noel Riley Fitch, Faculty Advisor to the Point, 1975-76

By: Dr. Carol Foster, M.D. (Co-editor of The Point, 1975)

The influence of Noël Riley Fitch on both The Point and The Blunt cannot be overstated, and the effect on her students was lifelong. She was hired at Point Loma College (PLC) in 1971 as professor of literature from a five-year assistant professorship at Eastern Nazarene College. At the time she was 34 years old and would remain at PLC for sixteen years.  During this interval, she inspired her students with her love of world literature and her deep sense of justice and equality. A particular focus was expanding the role and improving the views of women in society. 

PLC was quite conservative then and treated the female students very differently from the men. Many women at the college were not yet planning for a career other than homemaker, and restrictions on their personal life on campus were ubiquitous. Unlike today’s complaints that colleges are too liberal, at PLC it was the reverse. Women were given strict curfews, and the general expectation was that they would choose more feminine roles in safe fields like child development or music, even though by the ‘70s women outside our campus were breaking barriers in many fields. It was Fitch’s influence that supported ambitious women trying to prepare for the challenging careers that the modern world demanded. 

As a literature professor, she exposed her students to wide-ranging views of life and society that were often quite different from what they had experienced at home. She questioned the status quo and showed her students how to see beyond dogma. She was brilliant and quickly identified talent in the undergrads she taught. This led to her efforts to improve the level of writing in The Point and ultimately inspired the greater freedom of The Blunt. 

One of PLC’s strengths was the excellence of its liberal arts education. Although I was a biology major and would go on to become a physician and professor of otolaryngology, I took her literature courses in the first years of college.  Her viewpoint was unique, always showing us the ways women were being held back from realizing their full potential. She suggested that I apply to be the editor of The Point and I was chosen as co-editor (with Donna Baxley).  We did not have complete academic freedom; many of the details were determined by PLC staff on the grounds that The Point was an official campus newspaper. It was easy to overstep the bounds (running an ad for contraceptive services was far too threatening, apparently). Noël was there to support us throughout. When The Point was shut down, and The Blunt arose as a counter to the conservativism of The Point, she sided with the editors and supported our decisions.  

During her tenure, she learned much from her students. It was clear she was capable of teaching on the world stage. She was divorced from her first husband, Philip Fitch, and married Albert Sonnenfeld (professor of French and comparative literature, University of Southern California). In 1986 she began teaching at USC, and shortly thereafter at the American University of Paris. She went on to divide her time between Los Angeles, New York City and Paris. 

Her time in France led her to an interest in American expatriates in Paris, and she began a series of books about literary people who, like her, defied the restrictions of their upbringing. “Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation” was a major work, and her expertise in literary Paris led to her most famous book, “Appetite for Life,” as the first authorized biographer of Julia Child. She was a fascinating person; I continued to visit with her after she moved to USC, and she and her husband came out to Denver for stimulating conversations over French food into her 80s. 

She has authored many other books and articles and has appeared in documentaries. PLNU will forever have the honor of having recognized her early talent and provided the environment that brought her to prominence. It is her legion of students, however, that carries on her legacy of immaculate and boundary-breaking scholarship.