Noel Robinson called himself a vagabond, which was not strictly accurate because he did live part time in his own home — an off-the-grid shack in the woods fashioned from an old meat cooler. He divided the rest between a similarly rustic shack his father built in Itasca County, temporary lodging and long bike and canoe trips.
Robinson was an activist, beekeeper and much-admired tenor who taught voice lessons at the University of Minnesota. He wrote long letters and never emailed. Friends and family described him as charismatic and cheerful.
"He didn't have any yearning for the creature comforts and trappings of modern society," said nephew Brady Robinson of Boulder, Colo. He said his uncle demonstrated "that you could have an unconventional life and find happiness in simpler things."
Robinson died Aug. 14 while on a four-day bike ride with friends. After a night of conversation, he crawled into his tent "and went to sleep for the last time," friends said. He was 85.
"He always said he wanted to die reaching for that last blueberry in the bush — poof, gone! — and that's pretty much how he died," said Ted Schreffler of Eveleth, Minn., his close friend for 40 years.
Robinson grew up in Rush City, Minn. Jim Robinson, his younger brother, said the two of them liked to camp, bike, canoe and cross-country ski on "old-fashioned wood skis with a pine tar base," often staying in their father's shack.
"It had no running water, no electricity — it was very, very 1946," Jim Robinson said. "We loved it."
With a choir director's encouragement, Noel Robinson studied voice at the U, eventually earning a master's degree. He taught there and at St. Catherine University, sang with the Minnesota Opera for a couple of years and was a cantor for a local synagogue.
While performing as lead tenor in a choral group, he met his future wife, Patricia, the group's lead soprano. They married in 1965. The couple volunteered in the Cascade Mountains, then at a friend's suggestion volunteered in Chicago during the turbulent 1968 Democratic National Convention. Robinson worked with civil rights activists, including Jesse Jackson and Black Panthers leaders.
After their first daughter was born in 1969, the couple moved to Canada, where he taught musical studies and classical voice at the University of Prince Edward Island. In 1973, they returned to Minneapolis, where their second daughter was born.
The couple separated in 1976, but Robinson lived nearby and stayed close to his daughters.
In 1978, he bought land near Pepin, Wis., by the Chippewa River and hauled an old 14-by-16-foot meat cooler from Minneapolis atop his Volkswagen. Schreffler added a roof, loft, windows, deck and a storage building that Robinson packed with bicycles and cross-country skis.
Lit with kerosene lamps and heated with a tiny wood stove, the shack "was absolutely cozy," Schreffler said. "I had many philosophical rants with him after skiing all day. We'd sit in his hut, sip a little Drambuie and cook acorn squash in his wood stove."
Robinson co-founded the annual Lake Pepin 3-Speed Tour for cyclists in 2003, and it has grown since then. He sold honey and garden produce to a co-op and took odd jobs.
He was outspoken and opinionated, "prone to semi-informed ranting," as Brady Robinson put it affectionately. Jim Robinson liked to describe his brother's politics as being "so far out in left field he was sitting in the stands." But people liked his company.
"He'd walk into a room, and people would gravitate to him," Schreffler said. "It seemed like everybody knew this guy."
Besides his brother Jim, Robinson is survived by brother C.J. Robinson, daughters Aislinn Dorko and Amara Robinson, and five grandchildren.