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Remembering Eleanor Norris and the land she loved

A Norwell force of nature lives on in the hearts of those who loved her and in the land she donated on the river

Clockwise from top: a view from the deck of the old boathouse at Norris Reservation; the boathouse itself; a view through trees of the North River; Norwell resident Elizabeth Gordon standing next to a display about Eleanor Norris at the reservation. Below, Norris in about 1991.

Photos (ABOVE) by Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe

Clockwise from top: a view from the deck of the old boathouse at Norris Reservation; the boathouse itself; a view through trees of the North River; Norwell resident Elizabeth Gordon standing next to a display about Eleanor Norris at the reservation. Below, Norris in about 1991.

Adventurous even at age 100, Eleanor A. Norris last fall made a final visit to the marshes and woods along the North River where for decades she cleared brush, rode horses, skated, waltzed, played music, and loved the land.

Friends present that day recalled her delight when children exploring the trails said it was one of their favorite places, too. Her face lit up. “Do come back,” she said.

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The Albert F. Norris Reservation, one of the gems of the South Shore, was created in 1970 when, as a widow in her late fifties, Norris outwitted developers by donating 99 acres of riverfront property, valued at $40 million or more today, to the Trustees of Reservations.  

She went on living in a small house on five remaining acres and, until age 95, regularly walked the land preserved in her late husband’s name. After that, she caught rides there.

Her extraordinary life and values were celebrated by friends and admirers during a memorial service at First Parish Unitarian Church of Norwell last Saturday. Since her death on Nov. 23, about a week before her 101st birthday, residents have been offering heartfelt tributes. 

At a private burial on Nov. 30, the entire staff of a nearby family-owned gas station decided to close shop and drop by to pay their respects. “We walked up the hill to say goodbye to Eleanor,” said Art Joseph, her mechanic for more than 40 years.

In a moving eulogy Saturday, John R. Stilgoe, a professor in visual and environmental studies at Harvard University, described Norris as a woman of “indomitable courage.”

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“I remember so much about the woman who materialized behind my best friend, the late Harry Merritt, when we were both 11 and exploring her woods. She welcomed us and asked what we had seen,” he said.

“Through junior and senior high school, she involved us in experiences. Once she tried to teach us to waltz on skates, humming the music while skating backwards.”

Over time, said Stilgoe, he came to know her differently, glimpsing fragments of widowhood and coming to realize how much she missed her late husband and how resolutely she faced life without him.

He told of an evening in 1969 when Norris phoned him for assistance. A three-day storm had triggered rising water in the mill pond and threatened the dam. Norris had tried alone and failed to remove a sluice board to release the torrent. Soon Stilgoe was at the scene, lying on his stomach, she sitting on his legs, and by using a bridge plank as a lever, they succeeded.

In a photograph snapped 21 years ago, a smiling Norris is shown tapping a welcome sign at the reservation. She was wearing an elegant purple dress coat and a jaunty riding hat. She had already spent nearly three decades as a widow and emerged a lively force in the community. She had welcomed children and teenagers into the woods and helped found the South Shore Nature Center, now the South Shore Natural Science Center. 

She had worked for two decades as a schoolteacher in Hanson, nurturing student minds with her own exuberant brand of unconventional intelligence.

At the time of that snapshot, Norris had 21 years of life ahead of her. During that time, she traveled to Africa, Europe, and the eastern Pacific, “drawn by indigenous ecosystems and museums alike,” Stilgoe said in her obituary: “A strong swimmer and determined walker in rainstorms, into her eighties she carried her kayak through the woods on her shoulder. In her nineties she discovered computers, took college courses in their use, and continued learning about coastal New England ecosystems.”

“Eleanor lived life to the fullest,” said Betsy Gordon, a longtime friend and neighbor, recalling that Norwell residents frequently told Norris how much they appreciate the reservation, but that she was moved most by the irreverent enjoyment of the children.

“One boy thanked her, and said he went walking on the trails and fell in the mud, and it was awesome. She loved that card,” said Gordon with an affectionate laugh. “Eleanor believed children should be outside and close to nature. She was a real environmentalist. She was an inspiration.”

At the memorial service, Stephen Sloan, speaking on behalf of the Trustees of Reservations, held up the deed for the 99 acres of land that Norris signed over on Nov. 25, 1970. 

“Every year tens of thousands of people walk their dogs, walk with their families, or walk by themselves. They may be out getting exercise, perhaps they’re looking for inspiration from the beauty of the land and its situation on the North River. They may be relaxing after a long week or a hard day, or perhaps they are sharing one of their favorite spots with a new friend or a guest from out of town. But all of them are benefiting from their time in Eleanor’s woodlands,” he said.

She is buried in Norwell next to the love of her life, Albert, the youngest of 12, a hard-working boy from Worcester who spent Sundays tending acres of land along the North River and, finally, leaving it all to the woman he loved.


Visit www.boston.com/norwell to view photos from the life of Eleanor Norris and scenes from the Albert F. Norris Reservation.

Donations can be made to The Eleanor Norris Endowment Fund at Trustees of Reservations, 572 Essex Street, Beverly, MA 01915.

Meg Murphy can be reached at msmegmurphy@gmail.com.

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