Norma J Paulus
March 13, 1933 - February 28, 2019
“She Flies With Her Own Wings,” Oregon’s motto, epitomizes the life of Norma Paulus and the impact she had on this state. Paulus was an Oregon lawmaker and political leader whose public service during the 1960s through the early 2000s advanced women’s rights, quality education, environmental protection, and governmental transparency. She was one of a cohort of moderate Republicans whose ideas helped to enhance Oregon’s reputation for progressive, pragmatic politics.
Raised poor during the Depression, she overcame her humble upbringing and a bout with polio in her late teens. In her political career she broke one gender barrier after another, becoming a model for women in public service.
She was born Norma Jean Petersen on a farm in Belgrade, Nebraska to Paul and Ella Petersen, the fourth of seven children. To escape financial hardship and seek a new life, the family moved west in 1936, finally settling in eastern Oregon near Burns to prospect for oil, a promise that never materialized.
Norma graduated from Burns High School at seventeen and—college being financially out of reach—worked as a secretary for the Harney County district attorney, first Leland Duncan and then James Burns. At 20, she moved to Salem to work as a legal secretary. In 1954, she landed a job as secretary to Earl Latourette, chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court.
Impressed with her intelligence and drive, Justice Latourette recommended Norma apply to Willamette University’s law school using a law intended to benefit veterans whose education had been interrupted, which would enable her to enroll without an undergraduate degree. She passed a series of challenge examinations in 1956 and on Latourette’s personal recommendation was admitted—reluctantly—by the Willamette law dean on a part-time basis so that she could continue working full-time at the Supreme Court.
In 1958, she married a fellow student, William “Bill” G. Paulus. Their daughter Elizabeth was born in 1961. Worried that the increased demands of work and family would prevent graduation, Bill borrowed enough money from his uncle George Paulus for Norma to quit work and attend school full-time. This was one of the happiest days in Norma’s life and she never forgot George’s generosity. Paulus graduated with honors in 1962 and was one of only two women who passed the bar exam that year. Son Fritz was born in 1963 and Paulus continued her practice as a well-respected appellate attorney, working of counsel through her husband’s firm Paulus & Callaghan and for other law firms in Salem.
In 1966, Paulus campaigned for her law school classmate Wallace P. Carson in his successful run for the Oregon House of Representatives. Carson was a Republican and Norma had been raised in a family of Roosevelt Democrats, but she changed her affiliation in order to vote for her candidate. It was a heady time for Oregon Republicans. The popular governor Tom McCall inspired a cadre of bright young moderates to enter public service, and Norma felt Republicans “were in government for all the right reasons.” McCall would appoint Norma to the Marion-Polk Boundary Commission in 1969, a precursor to Oregon’s urban growth boundary concept, which put her at the forefront of land use issues in the state.
In 1970 she entered and won the Republican primary for Marion County District 4, going on to win the election. She served in the Oregon House for three terms, where she was instrumental in passing bills advancing women’s rights, environmental protection, and open government laws. She attended the Eagleton Institute’s Center for American of Politics annual conference as “outstanding freshman” in the Oregon House for the 1971 session - the only woman in the nation to attend that year. She worked with women colleagues in the legislature to secure Oregon’s ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1973, delivering a galvanizing speech on the House floor. She helped pass the Bottle Bill, advocated for acquiring Cape Kiwanda on Oregon’s northern coast as a state park which was slated to site a nuclear power plant, and she helped to pass Senate Bill 100, Oregon’s pioneering 1973 land use plan. During her legislative tenure she received a 100% environmental voting record.
She was elected Secretary of State in 1976, becoming the first woman to hold statewide elected office in Oregon. She served for eight years, during which she overhauled archiving procedures for state records, tightened processes and increased transparency for state agency audits and implemented Oregon’s first vote-by-mail election. Her deft handling of the investigation of potential voter fraud in Wasco County in 1984 defended the integrity of the election and defused a potentially violent situation. This garnered national attention and she was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as an observer to monitor the Philippines presidential election in 1986.
That same year she ran for governor and lost a close, hard fought race to Neil Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt subsequently appointed her to the Northwest Power Planning Council (now called the Northwest Power and Conservation Council), where she served through 1989, guiding production and distribution of electricity and the restoration of salmon runs in the Columbia River basin.
She was elected Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1990. She had always cared deeply about education and envisioned the superintendent’s job as a bully pulpit for a sales tax to support schools. That wish never became reality, but she championed a re-vamping of the state’s educational system that placed greater emphasis on performance standards and assessment measures. House Bill 3565, passed in 1991, established a nationally acclaimed school-to-work program that she helped to initiate.
In 1995 she entered the Republican primary to fill Bob Packwood’s seat and lost to Gordon Smith due in at least some part to her unwillingness to cater to a strikingly more conservative faction of the party. She continued as Superintendent until her term ended in 1999; she had contemplated retiring early to care for her husband who had been diagnosed with brain cancer the previous year, but he refused the impulse insisting she finish her service. Bill Paulus died in March 1999.
In 2001 Paulus became director of the Oregon Historical Society, serving through 2003. After retirement, she remained active in the community, serving on numerous boards including those of the Oregon State Capitol Foundation, High Desert Museum, Oregon Coast Aquarium, Oregon Garden, Portland City Club, Providence St. Vincent’s Hospital Foundation, and World Affairs Council of Oregon. She was a trustee of the Oregon Graduate Institute and an overseer of Whitman College, the alma mater of both her children. She was a lifetime trustee of Willamette University and received honorary doctorates from that university as well as from Whitman, Lewis and Clark, and Linfield colleges, among other notable service awards.
Norma Paulus was fiscally conservative and socially liberal. She leaves a legacy of independence, fierce respect for the integrity of democratic institutions, and willingness to engage adversaries or even friends in standing up for what she thought right. In 2004—a decade after the “Republican Revolution” shifted the national party further to the right—she and other moderate Republican leaders published an open letter in the New York Times, pleading with “our Grand Old Party” to put away partisanship and “return to the pragmatic, problem-solving mainstream.”
Her public persona was no mask, but an extension of her private self. Colleagues, friends, and family knew her as confident, gracious, charming, generous and often impatient. She genuinely liked people even when they didn’t agree with her. She was funny and self-deprecating, and loved to tell—and embellish—a good story whether on others or herself.
In recent years Paulus’s failing health necessitated a retreat from public life, but she remained close to family and friends up until the end. Her humor, ferocity, and delight in life will be missed greatly. She is survived by daughter Liz Paulus, son Fritz Paulus and his wife Jennifer Viviano, and their son Will, sister Gerri Pyrch, brother Paul Petersen, and nieces and nephews Allison Pyrch, Matthew Pyrch, Dan Petersen, Doug Petersen, Colleen Petersen, Bob Petersen, Jim Petersen, Carol Petersen, and Gary Petersen.
She will be interred at Belcrest Memorial Park Cemetery in Salem at a private service with the family. A public memorial service will be held in Salem at Willamette University, Smith Auditorium, Saturday April 27, 2019 at 2:00 pm, with reception to follow. Assisting the family is Virgil T. Golden Funeral Service.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be directed to Willamette University, Oregon Historical Society, or Providence St. Vincent Medical Foundation.