String of Pearls
By Kelly Greene
Pearls, with which I associated volunteers in a previous column, vary according to their hosts and locations of nurture. Much the same as human beings.
This occurred to me with Norah Thomas who had graciously consented to chat with me in her pleasant sitting room with a view of the inner city that she has enjoyed for the past seven years.
Suppose she had not been the last child, the fourth and only daughter, born to good parents of modest means; suppose her brothers in their youth had not modelled a commendable work ethic by labouring in the commercial market garden across the road where city and country merged; suppose her father had not been self-schooled, a careful craftsman and capable of inventing a device that earned a patent…
Powerful influences, the family and where they lived. Today Norah is retired from a noteworthy career, still beautiful, a diminutive dynamo with a very interesting history of volunteering.
When I suggested she had obviously inherited a first-rate brain as well, she laughed, “Oh no, that was my brother John. My father had hopes he would be a doctor but he became a pilot, the youngest Flt Lieutenant in Canada after his enlistment in the Airforce. My father was typical for his time insofar as educating daughters beyond high school.”
Even though I benefited from having three grades in one classroom while attending school—I was perhaps 10 years old when asked to mentor the younger ones because I had learned everything beyond my grade level—I had no idea just after high school graduation what the next step should be. It was while visiting a friend and her father’s query that gave me direction. He said, ‘Write a letter. List what you can do. And I’ll sign it.’ He was a well-known businessman and respected. “I was working in a bank within the next week.”
A year later, when Norah was 18, two events collided. Her father died and she met young woman newly arrived and full of enthusiasm about her studies in the United States. A change in direction beckoned Norah.
To finance her travel to Mars Hill, a junior college in North Carolina’s ‘bible belt’, Norah kept her recently promoted position at the bank, added weekends as a clerk in a drugstore and baby-sitting in the evening. During her two years at college she took every opportunity to offset room and board: “I was a hall monitor, worked in the cafeteria, I ran errands… Howard Johnson’s in the summer.” Norah graduated in 1958. Able to parlay into college courses at the University of Alberta she subsequently earned two degrees, a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Education. She was teaching within four years after her return to Edmonton.
While Norah found the classroom rewarding she became interested in improving the profession itself and her emerging reputation as a problem-solver and spokesperson elected her to the Provincial Executive Council of the Alberta Teachers Association. This was a position she held for ten years, and “probably my best years for personal growth.” She retired in 1998 and a year later was ready to take up the rest of her life as a volunteer.
She tackled this with the same energy and enthusiasm as previous ventures. She investigated opportunities.
Her father’s influence was ascendant in her initial choice of working municipal election campaigns. He had recognized at an early age her interest in current affairs. “My most exhilarating experience was working the front desk in the Edmonton office of The Honourable Anne McClellan, particularly during her term as Deputy Prime Minister.”
As a child Norah learned what needed to be done for her mother without being asked. Did this prompt her to volunteer in Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital emergency room where she instinctively knew when the old woman lying on a gurney in the corridor needed a blanket or that a knifed victim admitted on a Saturday night could be comforted with a soft voice of reassurance?
Dramatically different was teaching English as a second language to elderly Chinese. “I was so impressed with their interest in learning English. They were meant to learn six words in a lesson. But passersby in the corridor outside remarked about the hilarity in my class and I had to explain that I “taught big!” Pantomime?
Refugees also benefited from her tutelage; and for a year through Catholic Services in Edmonton Norah took a personal interest in a mother, who had fled with her three children from the brutal slaying of her husband in Africa, helping ease them into Canadian ways.
Different again was her work with Voice Print Canada which benefited the visually impaired. Twice a week for three years Norah would be assigned to read, be it a newspaper or poetry, or otherwise, calling upon the aptitude she had displayed during her college experience in Mars Hill where she competed as part of her broadcasting course. “Actually, I had been encouraged at that time to consider radio work.”
Edmonton was not the only arena for her altruism. Since 1976 Hawaii had been a vacation destination and when she retired Norah spent increasing amounts of time there, perhaps four to six months. For ten years she volunteered in Honolulu at the Queen’s Medical Centre, in the emergency room, in the surgical ward, and finally, as a liaison for staff and families in recovery.
As so often happens, choosing a humble task in an unfamiliar culture can be enlightening. This was Norah’s experience in Hawaii when she offered to “help” a teacher in an elementary school. “I never mentioned my training to her, just hoping to relieve her and some of her workload. I attended a couple of times a week for perhaps three or four years during the months spent on the Island. The group of children was multi-cultural, Tahitian, Korean…Grade III… and I sat with them when reading needed special attention. But it was difficult coming to terms with the idea that the school lunches were provided so they wouldn’t go hungry…very often the parents were working more than one ill-paying job and struggling to maintain their families.
Now Norah lives in Victoria, still involved in activities that excite her interest. She is an active Board member of James Bay New Horizons and a proof-reader for the James Bay Beacon. “But I feel I need to nurture myself for a little while. And keep in touch with my daughter and twin granddaughters in Moose Jaw. I find I really enjoy singing as a tenor in the choir.” Norah says with a charming smile.
*The Pinctada Margritifera oyster produces the incredibly exotic colours of the Tahitian pearl found in Polynesia”. One of them is silver green….Norah