Letter from the Editor Opinion

In memoriam: My teacher and inspiration, Jemimah Noonoo

Jemimah Noonoo was a professor in the Jack J. Valenti School of Communications. She passed away at 34 on Sept. 14, 2014.  |  Courtesy of the Houston Chronicle

Jemimah Noonoo was a journalism professor in the Jack J. Valenti School of Communications. She passed away at 34 on Sept. 14, 2014. | Courtesy of the Houston Chronicle

I don’t admit to this often, but this was an exceedingly tough thing to write about.

As journalists, it’s sometimes shameful to admit when certain things affect you personally, profoundly, to the point where your objectivity is in danger of being compromised.

Jemimah Noonoo, an inadvertent visionary; a mother of one, Nathaniel; a sister, professor, mentor and unassuming light on the UH campus has died. And that’s a difficult thing to talk about without saying things Ms. Noonoo would feel are far too cheerless.

I took Ms. Noonoo’s class a year ago during my first semester at UH. She’d say things like “ratchet” or “bonkers” or “cray;” ten minutes later, she’d be telling you about her experiences at the Missouri School of Journalism, where she earned her Master of Arts in Journalism, or her time at Newsweek, or the Houston Chronicle, or The New York Times. You’d be blown away, only to realize she’d used the word “ratchet” ten minutes ago. And then you’d smile.

People like Ms. Noonoo — Jemimah, as she’d probably want me to drop the formality — don’t come around often. I know we say that about anybody that’s passed, but it’s the God’s honest truth when it comes to her. I’ve never encountered anybody else like her, anybody that even came close to paralleling her effortless eloquence, her spirit, her unapologetic faith in God. That zeal, that natural sense of joy, her assumed sense of optimism — that can’t be faked.

“You feel that?” she’d ask the class after a rousing lecture on hunting down the story. “That’s the passion! That’s the hunger!”

I’d hang around after class sometimes. Initially, this wasn’t something I volunteered for. Sometimes Ms. Noonoo would ask me to help students after class with their writing for a few minutes or so. But before I knew it, it would be 8:30 p.m., 30 minutes after class had ended. Ms. Noonoo and I, and sometimes a few other students would be nerding out about something — talking about journalism, or her family, or faith, or something that the Times had written about that we thought was out of this world. She’d talk about her mother (“God love her,” I remember her saying more often than not), or her son (“my little Chocolate prince!” she once described him by to the class, only to be met with sheets of laughter).

One Tuesday, she called me to see if I could email the class; she was at the hospital, and she’d have to cancel that night’s session. Her voice was noticeably less full-bodied, and pretty coarse, chapped.

She asked me if I had been able to cover a concert I told her I’d wanted to review for her class. I had; for twenty minutes, from her hospital bed, she asked me how things went. How the concert was, if I was able to meet some quirky attendees. She was exuberant, almost more excited than I was. For twenty minutes, too sick to hardly move, she talked to me about the smallest, most inconsequential story. It was beyond a polite gesture; she just couldn’t be stopped from caring.

“I’ve gotta run now, hon,” she said, after talking to me for twenty minutes from a hospital bed.

And that’s why this has been really hard to write about.

She never told me she was sick — near the end of the semester, it got tougher and tougher to hide it. The class never had a name to associate to the cancelled sessions, the feeding tubes that Ms. Noonoo sometimes came in wearing, the dulled eyes, but never a dulled spirit. To this day, that information hasn’t been released by Noonoo’s family.

On Sept. 14, Jemimah Noonoo passed away. She was 34.


On the last day of class, the last day I saw her, Ms. Noonoo had us do a “mock” twenty-year reunion.

“Come to class as who you want to be; who you WILL be,” she told us, that signature fire in her belly. We took advantage of the freedom — among others, Ms. Noonoo was in the presence of three Vogue editors, an environmental lawyer, an E! News anchor, a music journalist living in Austin and a sports journalist living in New York City. During the “reunion,” one by one, we got up and talked about our lives — the lives that Ms. Noonoo desperately wanted us to have, only by virtue of us desperately wanting them.

She beamed. With each student that spoke, Ms. Noonoo became more and more engaged in these new, hyperfictional personas.

“This reunion is really going to happen, guys!” she told us. “Believe in this. Chase this.”

She said she couldn’t wait to see us again. I still believe this to be true.

— Cara Smith, Editor-in-chief 


  • I didn’t know her, but I feel like I know her spirit through this well-written piece. Cara, I feel like I know I know a little more about you as well. God bless her soul, and God bless her “chocolate prince.”

    • “The class never had a name to associate to the cancelled sessions, the feeding tubes that Ms. Noonoo sometimes came in wearing, the dulled eyes, but never a dulled spirit. To this day, that information hasn’t been released by Noonoo’s family.”

      Sounds like the malady isn’t something we should know.

  • Beautiful tribute. Just so sad for those of us who didn’t know her to get introduced to her upon her passing.

  • What a beautiful article. You brought tears to my eyes…and I wish I had known her, just from reading your descriptions of her. RIP Jemimah…I will look you up when I get to Heaven.

  • A beautiful piece about a beautiful life. Thank you for introducing her to the rest of us and I’m sorry for your/our loss.

  • This is something very shocking and sad at the same time. I remember taking her class, and I also remember her saying, “I’m so excited you guys!” She would say that every time we would have to write an article or attend an special event. Besides being an excellent professor, she was very sweet and witty. I also remember her giving us the fuel to start writing an article by playing the song, “Loose yourself” by Eminem. She was simply amazing. Thank you Cara Smith for this great article, it brought tears to my eyes. I will always remember Ms. Noonoo.

  • It is terrible to see any loss. I didn’t know her, but I understand the feeling of deep loss and grief that comes after losing someone who really means alot. I feel for the family, and this is a reminder for all of us to live our lives to the fullest. We have to use the moments to make an impact on those around us, because the candle that all of us are holding is burning and ever wanting to burn out. Thanks for such a wonderful memorial about her life.

  • Oh my goodness. I’m so touched by this. Thank you for so beautifully capturing Jemimah. I hadn’t seen her in several years, but you took me right back to her. What a lovely soul.

  • I took her class a few years ago. She would tell the most entertaining stories during class. I would laugh until my sides ached half the time I was there. She had an indirect way of teaching sometimes and because so I learned more than just the journalism basics from her class.I will forever be grateful for what I gained from taking her class.

  • Cara, what a lovely article. Jemimah was indeed a special spirit. I knew her when she was enrolled as a student at Missouri. It is so heartening to hear what a positive impact she had on others as she progressed in her career. The world is a little less bright without her spirit shining among us.

  • Great Article Cara. I felt like I knew her after reading this, and it makes me wish I could of seen that mock reunion in person. Thank you for writing, it was beautiful.

  • My teacher past away to on the 23 of this month she was 30 years old with a baby that was 3years old and lived in Mexico she would cross every day from here to there hearing this news bring tears to my eyes it just hard to imagine things like this

  • I knew Jemimah as one of my favorite students as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I chose her to be the commencement speaker the year she graduated. A bright personality with a brilliant mind, she epitomized commitment and faith. The world is lessened with her passing.

  • I have been away from the Liberian community of Chicago for a few years due to illness and now education related engagements. Jemimah’s father is truly a Liberian brother, though belonging firstly to the Ghanaian community here. His wife is Liberian by birth and he was a co-worker and friend at Catholic Charities for years.

    I watched Jemimah grow with all that parents would want in their children and a lot more. She was truly a child of promise…a star to behold. In her was fire for living life to the fullest while making genuine impact on souls encountered along the way. She had a promising career. I however had no idea that that life was to be so short-lived.

    Just today, I was searching for Dr. & Mrs. Noonoo’s contact information on the internet when I came across the shocking news of their gifted and productive daughter’s passing. I have sobbed with tears, asking the age-old question, “Why?” I’m terribly sorry for this painful loss, Brother Kofi and Sister Nettie! Many in the Ghanaian and Liberian communities, including me, will sorely miss Jemimah until we return to our Maker. But I’m sure you know that you were blessed as parents, to be the special channel through which this incomparable gift to many came to this world.

    My prayers are with you until that day when death is conquered and these eternal words become our new reality: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

    May he wipe away your tears like only He can! Blessings!!!

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