Remembering Norma Paulus LLB’62, Oregon’s first woman secretary of state

by University Communications,

Paulus paved the way for women in politics and long supported Willamette.

  • Norma Paulus LLB’62

One of Willamette College of Law’s most prominent graduates and a Willamette life trustee, Norma J. Paulus LLB’62, passed away Feb. 28 at age 85.

A political powerhouse and trailblazer, Paulus has been recognized for her advancement of women’s rights, education and environmental protection. In 1956, she scored so high on the College of Law’s  entrance exam, she was accepted and enrolled without first earning an undergraduate degree. In 1976, she became the first woman to be elected to statewide office in Oregon as secretary of state. In 1990, she became superintendent of public instruction.

“As a community and a state, we have benefited from Norma Paulus’ service, advancing causes close to our hearts,” said Willamette University President Steve Thorsett. “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.’”

Kerry Tymchuk ’81, JD’84, executive director of the Oregon Historical Society who knew Paulus for many years, joined many Oregonians in mourning her loss. Paulus held the executive director position from 2001-2003. 

“Norma spent her career making history and making a positive difference,” he said. “No matter the position, she served with intelligence, integrity and an ability to work across party lines to get things done." 

A public memorial service for Paulus will be held at 2 to 3 p.m. April 27 in Smith Auditorium. 

Early years

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 Law after taking exams that allowed her to enroll without college experience. She was the only woman in her class. She attended the university part-time so she could continue to work at the Supreme Court.

But after her marriage to William “Bill” Paulus JD’58 and the birth of their first daughter, Elizabeth, she worried the demands of work and family would prevent her from graduating. Bill Paulus borrowed enough money from his uncle so Norma could attend Willamette full time, “one of the happiest days” of her life, according to her family. 

In 1966, she campaigned for friend and classmate Wallace Carson JD’62, who was encouraged to run for an Oregon House of Representatives seat by Robert Packwood ’54, a state representative at the time. This was the first of several efforts by Paulus to help Carson run for office. Raised in a family of Roosevelt Democrats, Paulus changed her affiliation to vote for Carson, who was a Republican.

Carson said he frequently credited Norma for the success for his first legislative campaign, noting he “couldn’t have done it without her.”

“Early on, I noted that she 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,” he said. “Those qualities were perfect for campaigning.”

Carson was also a childhood friend of Bill Paulus, who died in 1999. Whenever he thinks of Norma, he says, he will always think of her as a dear friend.

“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,” he said. “She was one in a million and will be missed by many.”

Moving toward greater success

In 1970, Paulus won an election for the Oregon House of Representatives, serving three terms.

Several accomplishments followed: she secured 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 siting a nuclear power plant there. In the following years, Paulus ran for governor but lost to Democrat Neil Goldschmidt in 1986. From 1987–89 served on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

In 1990, she was elected superintendent of public instruction, championing job-shadowing in elementary school, mentorship, school alliances with businesses and school-to-work programs for all students by at least junior year of high school, according to a 1996 edition of The Scene.

She pursued this vision with tenacity — after traveling thousands of miles a year to persuade Oregonians to support her ideas, she told the alumni magazine she believed she’d changed clothes in every gas station in the state.

Critics at the time said that her plan might set children on a career track too early, to which she countered: “Some kids might end up working for a school-to-work employer, but we’re not asking 10th graders to choose an occupation for life.”

Paulus was involved with the Willamette community as a member of the board of trustees, which she joined in 1978. She was a member of the board’s College of Law Committee, the Organization Committee, and assistant secretary of the corporation. She was also a member of committees for academic affairs, the College of Liberal Arts and the Graduate School of Management before it became the Atkinson Graduate School of Management. Paulus also helped raise funds to expand and renovate the Collins Legal Center. 

In 2005, she became a life trustee, one of 31 Willamette trustees whose outstanding service and dedication to the University have earned them this honorary status.

In 2011, she endowed Willamette Law’s Norma J. Paulus Professorship, which is held by Robin Morris Collin. At the time, she told Willamette Lawyer magazine, “If the law school hadn’t taken a chance on me, where would I be?”

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