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Remembering Norene Chase, a “warrior” with a clipboard

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On the second day of 2016, a group of about 100 gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tallahassee to bid farewell Norene Olson Chase, who, at 91, lived a decade longer than the average woman in the United States. She died Dec. 14.

Chase died, as nonagenarians are wont to do, after falling, breaking her hip, and contracting a fatal pneumonia.

She was not someone I knew at all, but the mother of a friend of mine, and my thoughts were along the lines of “she led a good, long life” and “she raised a wonderful, loving daughter.” But as she was eulogized by family and friends, I learned about the inspirational life of, as one fellow UU congregant called her, an extraordinary “peace warrior,” ardently advocating for the causes she supported. Her causes included environmental conservation and conservation, voter education and community engagement, universal health care and uplifting the lives of migrant workers.

Eric Draper, president of the Florida Audubon Society, called her a person “small in stature who loomed large.”

Much of her work was done through the League of Women Voters and she was honored by that group in 2013 with a 50-Year Lifetime Achievement Award. (Chase was born just four years after the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.) One of those who spoke at her service was Barbara McBride Sterling, who recalled meeting her friend and League cohort this way:

“When I arrived in Tallahassee 20 years ago, I was proud of my dedication to the League of Women Voters. Very quickly I met Norene Chase and found out what REAL dedication to the League meant. Within months of arriving, she had me in tow as she presented Florida’s senators and representatives with the League’s yearly list of probing questions about those social justice issues she so strongly supported. It seemed to me everyone up in the Capitol knew who Norene was and treated her with obvious respect … UNTIL we got to the office of a newly elected North Florida senator who just happened to represent our district.

“As we came through the door, he rolled his eyes and said, ‘Oh boy … here come those Democrats.’ Norene straightened up and announced ‘One of us is a Democrat, one is a Republican. I’m not telling you which is which because the League of Women Voters is absolutely nonpartisan.’ With that, she sat down, pulled out her clipboard and said: ‘And here are my questions.’ The senator meekly sat down behind his big desk and answered every question politely and completely.

“Beth (Norene’s daughter), when you went through your mother’s League files, I think you found more than 30 clipboards filled with League business, like petitions for amendments to the Florida Constitution. Norene was absolutely a master at getting people to stop, listen and sign petitions.

“Many years ago a Unitarian minister, the Rev. Theodore Parke wrote: ‘The arc of the moral Universe is long … but it bends toward justice.’ Norene spent her lifetime bending that moral arc toward justice. She did make a difference.”

The “in lieu of flowers” comment in her obituary didn’t ask for donations to her causes, but asked the communities she touched to “continue sharing their time and talents on social and environmental justice, engaging and educating voters, good governance and conflict resolution or wherever your heart takes you to help create a more just, peaceful and sustainable future for all.”

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