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The art of a well-lived life

Mary Win Norris dies at 99

Mary Win Norris chats with former student Joel Klaff when she won the Prairie Arts Center Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award in 2010.
Mary Win Norris chats with former student Joel Klaff when she won the Prairie Arts Center Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award in 2010.

PRINCETON — When a person’s passion intertwines with their career, one could consider it an ideal existence.

Artist Mary Winifred Skinner Walter Norris had a passion for art. A longtime art educator at Princeton High School, her artwork throughout the area has become legendary. Her lifelong canvas held a myriad of accomplishments, and her palette was filled with beautiful moments, memories and admirers.

Norris died Friday morning at the age of 99.

Norris’ niece, Holly Walter Jordan of Mahomet, spoke of her aunt with great admiration. Jordan said she was a PHS graduate and an art student of Norris, so she was able to experience her aunt both inside and outside the classroom. She said it would be nearly impossible to speak of Norris without talking about her aunt’s beloved home on East Peru Street in Princeton, which was dubbed Greenwood Cottage.

“(Greenwood Cottage) was such a vital part of Mary Win’s life — it’s almost like another person in her story. I can hardly think of her in any other context,” Jordan said of her aunt’s home, which Norris inherited at the age of 21. The home was built by her great-grandparents in 1853, and Norris always felt as if she was the steward of the home, rather than just the owner. She took that responsibility very seriously.

Jordan said Norris and her first husband, Gene Walter, worked tirelessly to save the home and restore the yard and garden, working from dusk to dawn to ensure the beauty that ultimately resulted.

“Into her 90s, Mary Win worked in the garden a couple of hours every summer morning,” Jordan said. “At its most spectacular, the garden saw many weddings, appeared in gardening magazines and was on the local garden walk several times. A good many of the plants were originals, having been planted by her great-grandmother, Sarah Taylor.

“I don’t think it ever crossed Mary Win’s mind to live anywhere else,” Jordan continued. “Greenwood Cottage represented and honored family history and the history of Princeton. Not many years ago, she told me about lying in bed there, and thinking about all of her family members who had been born and died in that front bedroom — almost hearing and seeing them in the house.”

Munro Norris of LaMoille was at Mary Win’s bedside during those last hours of her life. His stepmother was a very gracious lady, extremely kind to his father, Don, as his second wife and to the entire family.

When Mary Win married his father, Munro was already a grown man with a family of his own. One of his special memories was when she painted a portrait of his three daughters together, when they were around 10 years old, out in their backyard. That portrait still hangs in the living room.

“When we sit in our living room and we see this painting and others she has done, you just don’t see how it is humanly possible to do such work. These paintings were like photographs, outstanding,” Munro said. “She had such a rare gift, and she was so modest about that gift.”

Munro said he enjoyed visiting with Mary Win in her very nice, quaint and picturesque home on East Peru Street. She never had a cross word for anyone. She was quiet, but very intelligent with a depth of knowledge. She was a dynamic lady, Munro said.

He thinks Mary Win would like to be remembered for her talent as an artist, but also for her capabilities in her garden. She was outstanding in each. Both were extremely peaceful things for her to do, he said.

For years, she would open her garden for weddings, not just for family and friends, but for people who were just acquaintances, Munro said. She would go through the extra chores to make sure the garden was just right for a wedding.

Though he did not know Mary Win when she was teaching school, all of his friends seemed to know her. Seldom do you see a quiet person who was so well-known and well-liked by everyone, he said.

Norris was best known in the area for her artwork, which spanned several genres. She was the recipient of much praise as well as many awards in the area. A quiet demeanor, she was a humble woman who shared her love of art with many, including the students she taught at Princeton High School.

Margo Brown of Princeton remembered Norris as a great art teacher, who was known for taking her students to her nearby home so they could go out into her garden and draw. Those were special times, Brown said.

“I loved her to pieces. We all loved and respected her, “ Brown said. “My favorite times were when we went out into her garden to draw, that gate of hers, the flowers.”

Brown said she took art all four years during high school. Norris encouraged her to draw people because Norris saw Brown had a talent in that area. Norris was very gracious and had a great poise about her, Brown said.

Brown’s most coveted possession from Norris is a portrait which Norris had done about 20 years ago of Brown’s children.

PHS Class of 1970 student Joel Klaff, who now resides in Chicago and works all through the country in TV and film production/set decoration, spoke fondly of his teacher from long ago.

“One winter day I received a call from a friend, Margaret Martinkus, to come to Princeton because they were honoring Mary Win,” Klaff said. “I am so glad I was able to make that trip to Princeton one cold February day and thank her myself.

“Once I made my way back to Princeton on that cold day for her reception, I said something to the effect, ‘She never taught me to draw or paint like her, but she encouraged me to live a creative life and to see the world around me with my own personal lens,’” he remembered.

“All you had to do is witness Mary Win’s marvelous artistic life doing her work each and every day. Whether painting, drawing, teaching or gardening, it was an expression of how she saw the world around her,” Klaff added, saying Norris used to take her PHS art students to her garden to paint and draw.

“Her memory lives on in her great contribution to the community,” Klaff said. “Thank you, Mary Win, for sharing your vision with all of us.”

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