“As a community and a state, we have benefited from Norma Paulus’ service, advancing causes close to our hearts. Like many state leaders, past and present, who were educated at Willamette, her life truly embodied our motto, ‘Not unto ourselves alone are we born.’” — Willamette University President Steve Thorsett.
The life of Norma Paulus
Raised in Nebraska and eastern Oregon, Paulus overcame polio and poverty before she became a legal secretary for the Oregon Supreme Court in 1954. On recommendation from one justice, Paulus applied to Willamette University College of Law in 1956. She scored so high on the entrance exam that she was accepted and enrolled without first earning an undergraduate degree. The only woman in her class, she attended classes part-time while continuing to work at the Supreme Court.
After Norma’s marriage to William “Bill” Paulus JD’58 and the birth of their first daughter, Elizabeth, Bill worried the demands of work and family would prevent Norma from graduating. He surprised her by obtaining a loan from his Uncle George, so she could attend Willamette full time. This was “one of the happiest days” of Norma’s life, according to her family.
In 1966, Norma’s distinguished and pioneering career in public service began when she campaigned for her friend and classmate Wallace Carson JD’62, who was running for the Oregon House of Representatives. Raised in a family of Roosevelt Democrats, Paulus changed her affiliation to vote for Carson, who was a Republican.
In 1969, Gov. Tom McCall appointed Norma to the Marion-Polk Boundary Commission.
In 1970, Norma became the first woman to be elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in the district representing Salem and Marion County. She served three terms.
Several accomplishments followed: She was a founding member of the Oregon Women's Political Caucus, was instrumental in securing the state’s ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1973, helped pass the Bottle Bill, and led efforts to preserve Cape Kiwanda as a state park instead of having a nuclear power plant built there.
In 1976, Norma became the first woman elected to statewide office in Oregon, serving as secretary of state until 1985.
She ran for governor but lost to Democrat Neil Goldschmidt in 1986. From 1987 to 1989, she served on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and was an ardent supporter of regional fish habitat protection.
In 1990, Norma was elected superintendent of public instruction, where she championed job-shadowing in elementary school, school alliances with businesses and school-to-work programs for all students by at least junior year of high school.
Norma held the executive director position Oregon Historical Society from 2001 to 2003.
Norma served on Willamette’s Board of Trustees from 1978 to 2005, when she became a Life Trustee, one of only 31 individuals whose outstanding service and dedication to Willamette have earned this honorary status.
In 1992, Norma and Bill, who died in 1999, donated property to Willamette in order to fund the William & Norma Paulus Scholarship for College of Law students ranked in top half of their class. The university awarded honorary degrees to the Pauluses in 1999.
In 2011, Norma endowed Willamette Law’s Norma J. Paulus Professorship, which is currently held by Robin Morris Collin. At the time, Norma told Willamette Lawyer magazine, “If the law school hadn’t taken a chance on me, where would I be?”
In May 2017, Oregon State University Press published Norma’s biography, “The Only Woman in the Room, the Norma Paulus Story,” which is based on oral histories and archives from the Oregon Historical Society Research Library, Willamette University Archives and the Oregon State Archives.
The Norma Paulus Papers, which contain documents from her time in the Oregon House of Representatives and other materials and memorabilia from her years in public office, reside in the Willamette University Archives.
Remembering Norma: Memorial Service
There will be a public memorial service for Norma.
- April 27
- 2 p.m.
- Smith Auditorium
A reception will follow in Cat Cavern.
“Norma Paulus overcame tremendous odds — poverty, polio — to pursue a life dedicated to leadership and public service, blazing a trail many other women leaders would follow. She truly embodied our state motto, ‘she flies with her own wings.’”
“It's a loss of a real hero to women leaders in the state. As other women came along and held statewide office, myself included, we really sort of stood on the shoulders of the woman who made that first step.”
“I will never forget an overnight alone with Norma at her home on the Oregon coast with hours of questions and answers about her life, and a very special moment watching together the green flash from her deck on the Pacific — a very wonderful rare treat.”
“Norma spent her career making history and making a positive difference. No matter the position, she served with intelligence, integrity and an ability to work across party lines to get things done.”
“Early on, I noted that Norma was one of those gifted people who have an inner energy and enthusiasm that can galvanize those around her to work toward a common goal ... It is hard to measure the effect that a friend has on one’s life, but I am sure that my life and careers in both law and politics have been brightened and enriched immensely by my 60-year friendship with Norma. She was one in a million and will be missed by many.”
“Norma Paulus is justly celebrated as a pioneer in the whole state. But for us at Willamette she has been much more than that: An inspiring leader, a strong and loyal supporter of the College of Law, an exemplary role model for our students and faculty, a wise counselor, and a gracious friend. As one of her countless admirers, I am forever grateful for her advice, support and friendship.”
“My favorite quote about Norma Paulus is from the Tribute to her in her autobiography, written with Gail Wells and Pat McCord, The Only Woman in the Room. One definition of leadership is simply to go first. Norma Paulus embodied that definition so well that she created firsts: First woman to graduate from Willamette Law School without receiving a college degree. First woman to win the Moot Court Competition at that law school. First woman elected to statewide office in Oregon. First woman to serve on the Northwest Power Planning Council. First woman to serve as superintendent of public instruction. To attain these formidable accomplishments, Norma Paulus had to be willing to go first, to give of her talents and energy, and to trust that the giving would matter. These are the qualities that truly embody Norma Paulus.’ I am honored to hold the law school chair named in her honor.”
“We at Willamette are very saddened to learn of Norma Paulus’s passing. Norma was what we aspire for all of our students to be: an amazing lawyer and a crucially important leader for the region. She was a trailblazer for women in government in Oregon who made a lasting impact with her personality and professionalism as much as her on-paper accomplishments. Oregon and Willamette will miss her dearly.”
“I moved to Oregon in 1989 in part because there were so many women in elected leadership positions. Norma Paulus was among the first I met through the Oregon Women’s Political Caucus. She inspired many women to run for office, to work together to improve gender parity in governing bodies that make the laws and policies affecting women’s lives. The evidence of her influence and impact is substantial: Oregon has become a place where women lead. This is indeed an impressive legacy.”