Robert Pingpank ‘59 On 64 Years of Love and Hope With Partner Richard Nolan ‘59

6 min read

By Savannah Brooks ‘26

Managing Editor

On June 4, 2009, Robert Pingpank ‘59 and Richard Nolan ‘59 became the first same-sex couple to be married in the Trinity College Chapel — a testament to the decades of nationwide change through which they had been able to find love and happiness in one another.

In an interview with the Tripod, Pingpank described his life with Nolan, who passed away in 2020. The pair met for the first time at their freshman orientation at Trinity. “Most of the group was playing football on the athletic field. Those of us who weren’t particularly athletic were sitting on the hillside watching. Richard struck up a conversation and that’s how we happened to meet. The chemistry was there. We knew from the start that this was right for us. Even that was a strange coincidence.” Nolan and Pingpank were in the same class year because Nolan had done an extra year of postgraduate school between high school and college. “If he hadn’t done that, he’d [have] been [at Trinity] ahead of me, and we wouldn’t have been there in freshman orientation at the same time. So it was just made to be, I think,” Pingpank said. 

Pingpank described his four years at Trinity as “kind of a blur. We just made our way through because we didn’t know where we were going. We didn’t know we were going to be able to stay together. We wanted to, but we didn’t see how that was going to be possible. As time went by, we realized we would stay together, but our whole focus was getting through school, hiding our relationship and finding a way to make it work. I was glad when we graduated, because we were in the closet all the time.” During the couple’s time at Trinity and for over a decade after, being homosexual was a crime in the state of Connecticut, greatly enhancing the pressure put on Nolan and Pingpank to stay hidden. 

After graduation, Nolan went on to receive a master’s in theological studies from the Hartford Seminary as well as a master’s in religion from Yale Divinity School. He additionally received a Ph.D in religious studies from New York University. Six years after graduating, he was ordained as an Episcopal priest. Pingpank additionally received a master’s degree in secondary school administration from the University of Hartford. Both men went on to teach, with Nolan becoming a professor of philosophy and social sciences at Naugatuck Valley State College and Pingpank teaching mathematics at Thomaston High School. 

In the 1960s, once Pingpank and Nolan had solidified their position in the workforce, they lived together in a house with two apartments so they could have separate addresses. In the 1970s, Nolan was part-time vicar in a small Episcopal church. “The first month or so I didn’t go to church, [Nolan} went. At first, we drove separately. Then, we started going in the same car. Even though that was back in the 70s, the high school kids kind of knew what was going on. I don’t think the adults thought about it. Maybe they wouldn’t allow themselves to think it. Our birthdays were three days apart. When we turned 40, we drove into the church parking lot, we saw a two story banner hanging from the parish hall that said: ‘Happy Birthday, Rich and Bob,’ That [was] amazing.”

In the years between the decriminalization of being homosexual and the legalization of gay marriage, Pingpank and Nolan were able to be incrementally more open about their relationship. The pair visited Trinity for the first time since graduation to attend the class of 1959’s 25th reunion. Reminiscing, Pingpank said “when we walked out onto the quad, we heard other classmates say ‘Oh my god, they’re still together.’ That happened again 10 years later when we went to our 35th reunion. Many of them were divorced or on a second marriage. Thirty-five years had gone by, and we were still together.” 

In 2005, Pingpank and Nolan were the first couple to register as domestic partners in West Palm Beach, Florida, where they moved after retiring in 1994. Members of their class might have been even more surprised to see them marry in the Chapel in 2009, a year after gay marriage was legalized in Connecticut and in their 54th year of partnership.  “It’s amazing to me that we went from being viewed as criminals to being able to get married in 2009,” Pingpank said. “And what a difference it made to be married when [Nolan] passed away. So many things were so much easier. It’s ‘Oh, do you have a death certificate naming you as the surviving spouse?’ Yes, I do. That took care of a lot of things; including making taxes easier. There are all kinds of benefits that married people take for granted. If two people have confidence in the relationship, marriage is the way to go.” 

When reflecting upon a life filled with love, hope, and everything in between, Pingpank said, “Things are so different than they were. We were enormously fortunate; the chemistry was just right. We always knew that we were made for each other, and that this was going to work. We had full confidence in the relationship, we had full confidence in each other, and we had really wonderful lives. Along the way, we’d speak with people both gay and straight. And they said, ‘Well, you know, every marriage has its ups and downs,’ ours didn’t. We were always up. The only downs for us was trying to make it work in society and not lose our job and [to] just get around the prejudice somehow. We had one of the best relationships I could ever imagine.” As a man of great faith, he also cited the prayer of serenity as something he recites often to alleviate his fears about the world. The prayer reads: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Despite Nolan’s passing in 2020, his words live on in an unpublished biography written in the 1980s and updated into the early 2000s. In it, he wrote: “For us, there will be only one crisis. And that will be when one of us dies and the survivor waits for us to be reunited.” After over 64 years together, the couple will always stand as a testament to the courage and love shown by LGBTQ+ people throughout history who have impacted every little corner of the world, including Trinity.

You May Also Like

+ There are no comments

Add yours