A Life Remembered
9:37 am
Mon December 2, 2013

Remembering Nora Hersey: Making Books, Music and Education Available for Others

LISTEN to the story of Nora Hersey, who believed in the value of education and making it available to everyone.

Hersey with some of her students in 1950, when she taught First Grade in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. She was 23 years old.
Credit Courtesy photo from family

Nora Hersey wasn't sure that Cape Cod was for her all year round. She loved her husband's family home in East Orleans. But it was a long way from her own home in Minneapolis, and even farther from the family farm in North Dakota, where she grew up. Her son Richard said his mother was worried that once Labor Day came, Cape Cod would be empty. So, for 23 years, she summered.

"They had their honeymoon in East Orleans," Richard said. "And it was the sweet memories that started there that kept them coming back every year. It was a place of great realization, where they could stop the world around them, relax and focus on family and really enjoy the time together."

In 1978, Nora and her husband Richard packed up his business -- the Hersey Clutch Co. -- and moved from Minnesota to East Orleans. Their daughter Liz said her mother soon met a devoted circle of friends. Just as she had when she moved from North Dakota to Minneapolis, Hersey found her way to the organizations where she thought she could do the most good.

"My mother found so many avenues of volunteerism that she could delve into," Liz Gardner said, "and she did in short order. And I think she later decided it was so fun to be here year round. Then all 4 children ended up within an hours drive here. And we all considered that such great fortune that we all could be so close."

As Richard tells it, Nora Hersey grew up on the farm her grandfather settled in the Red River Valley of rural North Dakota, not far from the Canadian border. Her father grew wheat and barley.

"And as a result," he said, "her core values were created as a child, I think, because the life of a farmer is based on optimism, hope, and perseverance, patience -- and all of these characteristics, although she didn't choose that for her life, to be a farmer, she used those same characteristics to be productive for others."

Farm life may have built her character, but it didn't hurt her complexion. Her family likes to say that as a farm girl, she never saw the sun. Kate said Hersey either was inside helping her mother in the kitchen, tending to her eight siblings or reading books.

"Our Aunt Vivian was just telling us how beautiful my moms skin was," Kate said. "And even when she was dying, the nurses came in and said she has the most beautiful skin. She had very pale skin with Rosy cheeks … So apparently she was quite the beauty when she was a child and growing up."

When Hersey neared high school years, her parents made a decision. They needed her on the farm. There were younger children to look after and plenty of work to do, but they put all that aside. They wanted their remarkably bright little girl to get an education. A good one.

"So her parents sent her to live with a family in a local town that had better education. And then the did graduate her a year early, and because she was such a top student she got everything done in less time. So then she went teaching school in North Dakota, and then she went to Minnesota and got her degree at the University of Minnesota."

Last September, Kate and Richard took their mom back to North Dakota, where they visited the one-room school house where Nora Hersey took her first teaching job. It was called the Grey School, and children from nearby farms of all ages and grades would arrive each morning on horseback or get dropped off in carriages. The building is a historic landmark now.

"She had the instinct to mother and care for people, combined with the instinct to want to move on and get better educated, and she wanted always for other people to have those same educational opportunities."

The four Hersey children say they grew up in a house filled with music and conversation and books. Their mother adored parties and stories. She liked history and children.

"She loved to bake and cook."

That's her daughter, Liz.

"And her recipes came from her childhood, many of them. She made the same recipes year after year for every meal. I think about every christmas, she drew in the neighborhood with the children."

On Cape Cod, Hersey found a long list of civic and social organizations to support. But it probably was the library and the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra that earned her most steadfast devotion. At Snow Library in Orleans, she became the public face of the children programs. She was president of the Friends of the Library, and she served on the board of trustees. Tavi Prugno is the library director. He met Hersey soon after he started as a part-time reference librarian in 1996, and she came over to introduce herself.

Nora Keeling Hersey of East Orleans was known for her kind smile.

"You could see that she really loved the library because she wanted to contribute in both ways -- the friends and the trustees both contribute immeasurably to the library but in different ways. I have to say that Nora's two main interests were in education and in children, so she was always very active in the children's programs -- introducing the children's programs and making sure we had great children's programs here at the library. And also the Lifetime Learning Series, which encouraged education of adults."

Her family said Hersey had a desire to make books, music and other resources available for others. She attended most every Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra event, and executive director Jerry Karter said Hersey was a leader in the Friends Association and fundraising for the Symphony's education programs.

"She was focussed, very intelligent, quiet leadership. Strong, and very effective."

But Hersey's daughter Kate said fundraising did not come easy.

"She did tell a story about how scared she was to ask for money, not scared, but uncomfortable, and the first person she went to to ask for money, I think it was for the symphony, she was at their house, and that person pulled out their checkbook and wrote a $25,000 check, and mom said it made her feel so good, that mom said it made her feel so good, that after that it was a lot easier."

Her son Richard said his mother was determined.

"When she was fixed on accomplishing something, she got it done, plain and supple, and nothing was going to get in her way of accomplishing those goals. That sounds a little aggressive, but that's not the way she approached things at all. She was very determined and had perseverance, that the goal she was trying to achieve was met."

For the last 6 years of her life, Hersey regularly traveled to Harvard-Mass General in Boston to participate in a dementia study. Her memory and cognition were declining, though Richard said she creatively tried to hide it. In the study, she volunteered for a variety of clinical tests and deep brain scans. Her last appointment was the Thursday before she died.

 "She was an extremely proud person. They said, 'How are your activities going?' She said, 'Oh yes, I'm still involved in the book club and the garden club.' 'Oh, what book are you reading?' 'Oh, we're in between books right now.' And he pursued it a little further, and the shovel was coming out. She was getting a little deeper. And she managed to kind of change the subject on a related matter and discuss some other books she was very fond of. It came from her own personal pride, it hurt her to not be able to perform all the time at the level she had been used to."

Nora Hersey of East Orleans died on Oct. 24, she was 86 years old. Richard said his mother donated her brain and body to Harvard-Mass General to help further medical research. Her children say that since their mother died, they've all heard stories about her benevolence, her dedication to helping others and her kind smile.