Norma Martin: The Spirit of Giving Back

 For Norma Martin, the most important thing in life is the willingness to help others in need. That’s a mantra she has fulfilled for most of her 50 years living in Loudoun.

As she prepares to celebrate her 100th birthday this week, Martin looks backs on an adventurous and action-packed life, of which her public philanthropy in Loudoun on behalf of dozens of charitable organizations has been the core. 

Martin’s years helping others will be celebrated by her friends on Saturday at a special birthday lunch. 

The former Norma Stillwell was born in Panama, where her father was The Locks Division superintendent in the U.S. Canal Zone.

She met her future husband in Panama. Lt. Lee McNeer Martin, a member of the U.S. Army Reserve, was called up in 1941, and his unit deployed to Panama. They married on April 18, 1942 in Pedro Miguel.

After the war, the couple was stationed in Japan from 1948-1950, before returning to the U.S. and eventually moving to the Leesburg area in 1971. Lee Martin died in 1981. The couple had three sons and a daughter, Normalee, who lives with her mother in Leesburg. 

A Loudoun Volunteer

The start of Norma Martin’s philanthropic work in Loudoun began in 1972, when, as a hospital volunteer, she met the late Zora ‘Mac’ Brownell—a human dynamo whose cheerful and positive attitude toward helping others hit a responsive chord in Martin. 

The meeting marked the beginning of an abiding relationship between two remarkable women, who between them spearheaded many of Loudoun’s philanthropic efforts. 

“We hit it off … we were best friends,” Martin said. For them both, “give back” was their motto.

There are few major community projects in Loudoun with which Martin has not helped. In a recent interview, she ticked off 13 organizations and nonprofits with which she has been involved—most importantly her work with Nancy’s Cookies to raise funds for the county’s first Alzheimer’s respite center. [See sidebar]

She also singled out her time at Loudoun Memorial Hospital, volunteering as a “Pink Lady”; her work on the former Carver School in Purcellville; the Loudoun Chapter of the Red Cross; and her time on the Loudoun Library Foundation and Animal Care & Control boards of directors. 

Nancy’s Cookies

Martin has a special fondness for the time that she baked cookies at St. James Episcopal Church in Leesburg with Brownell and others, and then sold them to the public from a small nook under the back stairs of Leesburg’s Market Station retail complex.

The focus of the group was to raise funds to build an adult day center to help those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and their families.

For many working in the building at that time, the aroma of the freshly baked cookies rising up the back stairs was irresistible, resulting in a brisk daily trade.

They were known as “the Cookie Ladies,” or to give the group its own informal name, the “Peaceable Kitchen,” and Martin noted part of the allure of the twice-weekly baking sessions was the fun and camaraderie the women shared. 

Julie Franklin has known Norma Martin for 30 years, and for a while was one of the bakers at St. James. 

“She’s my hero,” Franklin said. “She’s just a good person; she’s funny, smart and caring.” 

She also has abundant energy, according to Franklin. When Martin was her administrative assistant at Meadow Glen of Leesburg, Franklin recalls residents were complaining about their aches and pains, while Martin, who was older than they were, was scampering up and down the stairs to her second floor office.

The Merry Bakers

Looking back on the time at St. James, Franklin said, “It showed the power of a group of women.” It was a time of “passion and involvement” in projects for community betterment. 

The name “Nancy’s Cookies,” came from Loudoun County Extension service home economist Nancy Cockerill, who baked with them. “She had all the recipes.”     

         The core baking group at St. James fluctuated between seven or eight, headed by Brownell. 

Martin loved writing poems and in one, a playful allegory about the bakers’ work in support of the respite center, “The Peaceable Kingdom,” she likened her fellow cooks to creatures of the forest, headed by Brownell known as Mama MacBunny. Martin gave her friends various monikers—such as her own, Norma Needlefish. The animals see the need, and scurry around to find the necessary provisions—nuts and fruits and roots, etc.—to lay in for creatures who need the help.

Martin also wrote about the aromas, warmth and sounds of that kitchen—the scent of fresh dough, different flavors, the scraping of the cookie dough bowl, or the “whacking” of the cookie tins while sliding them into the oven. In the mind’s eye, one can picture the kitchen—windows wide open, warm ovens, butter and eggs on the counter and hear the hum of the women’s chatter. The bakers would turn up in tennis shoes or sandals, likely as not. A favorite memory was of the “dish towel shuffle,” that Brownell would do to clean scraps and dough off the floor. 

 “Our aim was to ‘make a difference,” Martin said. Above all, she cites the excitement and exhilaration of the quest, the comradeship and friendship and the “doing of it.”

That included making a wide variety of mouth-watering cookies—from lemon drops, shortbread, oatmeal cookies, raisin cookies, different kinds of chocolate chip cookies, coconut crisp, cream cheese, peanut butter, poppy seed cookies or cinnamon sugared Snickerdoodles. 

Her writings reflect the glow of pride the women felt to see how their efforts had blossomed. And to the question “have we made any difference at all,” she answers with a resounding “yes.” The fruits of the bakers’ labors have helped many a “lonely soul,” she maintained. And in 2003, she ends one poem with a glad cry—“We made it.”

And the overwhelming sentiment from the cooks was “gratitude that they’d been able to play a part” in the eventual construction of the respite center. 

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