Tony and Helga Noice

Love lesson: "Throughout your life you change," Helga Noice says. "You have to establish closeness at each stage, and that involves talking it out. You can't let things fester." (Andrew A. Nelles, Chicago Tribune)

It started as a shipboard meeting between two people just doing their jobs.

It grew into a wonderful marriage and, beyond that, a wonderful partnership.

Tony and Helga Noice each have their own careers. He is a cognitive researcher, actor and director and teaches theater in the department of communication arts and sciences at Elmhurst College. She is a cognitive psychologist, also teaching at Elmhurst.

And as a team, they are respected researchers who for years have been breaking ground in the field of mental processes, examining how acting techniques can aid cognition in older adults. Their work has earned them four National Institutes of Health grants as well as grants from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the National Science Foundation and the Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust.

"There are many researchers looking at the benefits of arts — music and dance, for example — in terms of health," Tony says. "But we still seem to be the only ones doing this with theater."

Helga and Tony, who live in Elmhurst, first set eyes on each other on Feb. 22, 1969, onboard the Hanseatic, a German cruise ship out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

In addition to performing on the ship, Tony was the cruise director. Helga Ristow was a travel agent for Dayton's in Minneapolis, back in the day when a person could book a cruise through their favorite department store. She had about 15 customers in her charge for a 14-day Caribbean and South American cruise.

"One thing you do as a cruise director is spot people," Tony, 79, says between sips of coffee in a lounge at Elmhurst College. "I saw Helga on deck with a clipboard, looking 40 years younger than our other customers. Back then, most of our guests were affluent older people. I asked, 'Are you a travel agent? Do you have a group on board?' I told her that if there was anything I could do to make her cruise a success, (to) let me know."

The attraction was immediate.

"She was gorgeous," Tony says.

"He was charming," Helga, 73, adds.

So over the next two weeks, Tony charmed Helga.

"Mainly, he wined and dined me," she says. "We were in a lot of different ports. … It was like a fairy tale, every day a different port."

After the cruise, she returned to Minneapolis, and he returned to his shipboard duties. But they continued to see each other; using her travel agent discount, she would fly to wherever Tony's ship was, then sail back to Florida. The romance blossomed, and they were married on March 23, 1970, one day, one month and one year after that first meeting.

Helga wasn't enamored of life at sea, so around 1972 she started going back to school in Fort Lauderdale, studying psychology. "I would try to be on the ship one week and at school one week," she says. "That first day back (at school), I'd look around for some reliable-looking student to get the notes from the week I was gone."

Tony also began spending more time on land, working four months a year on the cruise ships and the rest of the time with various theater companies. They also both continued their educations and eventually got their doctorates. Though they arrived at that point separately, they were soon working together. Her interest was the strategies actors used to learn their lines. With his background, Tony was a natural contributor.

Early on in her published papers, Helga had cited Tony as a consultant.

"I recruited a number of friends," he recalls. "She had them dictate the mental processes they used when they learned a script. Her first article cited me. Her second article cited me. Third article cited me. Then she said, 'This is silly, because this is a collaborative effort; you're doing half the work.' So she put me down as co-author."

Between them, they soon came up with a system of teaching acting to non-actors, such as students. Helga wondered at some point: If the system is good for undergraduates, what would it do for elderly people who might be undergoing mental changes?

Their work got them a grant to study in Switzerland in 1999, investigating memory in older adults and developing strategies to mediate their memory problems. Their first NIH grant came in 2001; others followed regularly. They are completing a four-year grant, working with neuroscientist Art Kramer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, studying how an acting training program may impact cognition in older adults.