Continued connections

For 20 years, Norma Curtis was a friend to female students at Southern Oregon University, bringing them soup when they were sick, taking them to the dentist when they had a toothache and encouraging them to finish their education despite difficult situations.

When she died in May at age 81, her husband, Philip Curtis, decided to continue her legacy, donating $180,000 to the university for a scholarship in her name. The Norma S. and Ethel M. Curtis Memorial Scholarship Fund, named also in honor of Philip Curtis' mother, will award full tuition, fees and a $1,000 book allowance to a female graduate student in the sciences every year beginning next fall.

"It was something we just developed in terms of, 'What are you going to do when you check out?'" Curtis, 86, said. "So we did, and I fully expected it was going to be her choice."

Norma Curtis worked as a reading specialist in Los Angeles public schools, then joined the Ashland chapter of American Association of University Women when she and her husband moved to Ashland in the 1980s. She organized College Connections, a mentoring program that matched members of AAUW with SOU students who were returning to school after a leave of absence or divorce, or were working part-time or raising children while attending school.

Work at SOU

One student who had recently returned to school after a divorce was quoted anonymously in a 1994 article in the university's Siskiyou newspaper shortly after the program was launched, praising Norma for her "tremendous help" and willingness to lend a listening ear.

"Norma personally took me around SOSC and introduced me to some department heads just to see if there were any jobs on campus," the woman said. "I would have been too shy and self-conscious to do it on my own."

More than 30 AAUW members participated in the program, 19 as mentors. Curtis also created an affiliate membership program, allowing students to join AAUW before they earned their degrees.

"We wanted to let students know that others in the community are interested in them," she told the writer of the 1994 article. "We feel this is a valuable connection that women make early in their lives."

Joan Thorndike, who originally joined AAUW as an affiliate member in 1987, recalled the long-lasting impact Norma and the AAUW had on her and her classmates.

"Norma was a very quiet person; she was not showy at all, but very determined, and she was always attending AAUW meetings and always coming up with new ideas on how to foster higher education for young women," she said. "They just nurtured us, encouraged us, listened to us and didn't allow us to take refuge in an excuse like, 'I can't find childcare.' That was just not acceptable. They were what you wish for every young woman in her late 20s and early 30s. A cluster of remarkable women."

Struggling to start

Norma wanted to see young women reach their goals of an education and a career partly because she herself struggled to earn her degrees, her husband said.

She met Philip Curtis at Los Angeles State, now known as California State University, Los Angeles, where both were working on degrees in education. She was raising two small children from a previous marriage and working as a teacher on emergency credentials granted after World War II.

"Since I was paying my tuition, I was broke all the time, and of course so was she because she was raising two kids, so we had that in common," he said.

Norma Curtis got her bachelor's degree and went on to earn a master's degree at the University of Southern California. Philip Curtis took a job in administration at the school district and eventually moved into the space industry at TRW Defense and Space Systems.

In the early years, budgeting was always a struggle, and Norma continued to use the skills she learned back then all of her life. She left her personal touch all over the home she and Philip owned outside of Ashland, from the handmade draperies and bed coverings to the knitted sweaters that Philip wears.

Her influence extended far beyond the classroom and into the community. When teachers unionized for the first time in Los Angeles, she walked the picket lines during negotiations. In addition to AAUW, she was a member of the Tudor Guild and often in the last few years of her life, Philip Curtis took her to the Ashland Public Library to enjoy the children's storytelling hour.

"She so enjoyed children and teaching them to read," he said. "She would just be delighted."

Long-lasting impact

During her time in AAUW, Norma won numerous awards, including the inaugural Florence Schneider award in 2000 as a person who left an "indelible imprint" on the Ashland branch.

"I think she earned every honor that we've given as AAUW," her friend Ann Stein said. "She was one of the people who made the organization run."

Friends remember her as a person who went above and beyond what was required without too much fuss.

"She navigated in a very serene way and she accomplished more than most of us who were spinning our wheels, and always with humor and chuckles," Claire Carroll recalled.

Although she is gone, Norma will continue helping the next generation.

The scholarship is for women pursuing graduate work in the sciences because Norma felt women were limited when she was coming of age.

"Nowadays I don't think it's so true, but when she was growing up, women had very little choice," Philip Curtis said. "It was teaching or social work or nursing."

Although Norma attended only a few classes at SOU on sabbatical, Curtis made the donation where he felt the need was highest. Women in Oregon had fewer opportunities than women in other states because the timber industry was so dominated by men, and the Oregon university system is also in more need than the schools in California, he said.

"This scholarship will make an incredible difference," SOU President Mary Cullinan said in a statement. "This gift has the power to transform lives."

There is the possibility of a further donation in the future, Curtis said.

"I'll probably be making a significant donation when I check out and the kids will have to suffer," he said. "They're aware of what I'm doing."

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or

Share This Story