The Last Quilt
The Legacy of Norma Mikesell
The last quilt in the title of this article does not refer to the final of eight beautiful quilts that Norma Mikesell bequeathed to the Hillsboro Library before she passed away.
Norma died at the age of 93 on January 18, 2013. Her final wish was that one quilt be raffled off each year on her birthday, October 19, until the year she would have been 100 years old.
Next Tuesday marks Norma’s 101st birthday. The last quilt of the eight, a Christmas design, is being raffled off a year late due to last fall’s COVID 19 restrictions.
When asked by the Hillsboro Library Friends to write something about Norma Mikesell to mark this occasion, I felt it would be difficult. I wasn’t sure that there was a superlative left in the English language that hadn’t already been employed to describe this remarkable woman.
Over the years, everybody from Jaynell Graham to Helena Gondry had weighed in artfully on the life and personality of Norma Mikesell. What could I say that hadn’t already been said? Not exactly fertile ground for writing anything original about such a unique character.
So, because I am a member of the Hillsboro Library Friends, I decided to accept the task but narrow down the scope of this article to Norma’s ubiquitous philanthropy.
And, it is an undisputed fact that Norma possessed an unusually generous heart while alive and the foresight to leave a legacy of giving after she departed this Earth.
It is tempting to sum up Norma Mikesell in two convergent natures; a larger-than-life character and a profoundly generous woman; both are accurate. Throw in the phrase exceedingly humble, and you have a near-perfect picture of Norma.
But her lively and sometimes entertaining eccentricities demand a much fuller accounting.
In life, Norma had a salty disposition, and some say an occasional vocabulary to match. When it came to conducting business, she was a no-nonsense woman.
Her motto, according to one friend, was “no fussing, no cussing.” However, there were some rare occasions when Norma disregarded the “no cussing” portion of her own credo as a way of enforcing the “no fussing” edict.
Her method worked quite well in keeping to the plan at hand and getting things done.
That said, and before I continue further into her unusually generous disposition, a short biography is in order.
Norma Mae Kellison Mikesell was born in Huntersville on October 19, 1920, to Mary and Claiborne Kellison. At 13-years-old she moved in with a family in Hillsboro so that she could attend school there.
Cooking, cleaning and caring for the couple’s young daughter, she learned responsibilities at a young age. Being responsible would be a hallmark of Norma’s life.
After graduating from Hillsboro High School, Norma became a student at a business school in Lewisburg. From there, she attended nursing school in King’s Daughter Hospital in Martinsburg, graduating in 1943.
The “Big War” was on, and Norma felt the call of duty. She enlisted as a Navy nurse, earning the rank of first lieutenant.
She would have stayed in the Navy after the war, but after marrying in 1945, she, like all married servicewomen at the time, was forced into an honorable discharge.
With good reason, Norma always resented this overt discriminatory practice that prematurely ended her Navy career. And, she was vocal about it. From everything that I can gather from interviews, she was an outspoken feminist for her time.
Sometime after the war, Norma and her husband, Mike, took to the road. Their Eureka moment came when they found the Desert Southwest.
For several decades they set their roots in the sandy soil of Arizona. Norma and Mike made their impression in the “Ditat Deus” state. Ditat Deus is Latin for God Enriches, and they took that motto as their sole mission; through Mike and Norma’s faith, they would spend their time and energy helping others.
While in Arizona, they started, among many programs, an EMT service where none was available as well as a popular Books on Wheels program.
When Mike died in 1991, Norma moved back to West Virginia, leaving behind countless Arizonians who had significantly benefitted from the couple’s selfless work.
At 70 years of age, Norma, now firmly rooted back in Pocahontas County, joined the Cranberry Piecemakers Quilting Guild and continued what she would call her “ministry to the community.” By that, she meant taking every opportunity to enrich and offer help to the community in which she lived.
According to her niece, Sharon Nicely, Norma preferred to “do her alms in secret,” meaning that much of her philanthropy was done anonymously.
Time after time, her generosity is demonstrated in anecdotes told by her many friends and family members.
A case in point: when the family of a musically gifted 13-year-old-girl in the area couldn’t afford a piano, Norma bought her one. On another occasion, upon learning that two brothers preparing to attend a seminary had no means of transportation, she gave the brothers her car.
Norma was known to visit yard sales, buying up every imaginable household item, which would then be given to victims of house fires.
Unknown to this author before composing this article, Pocahontas County is home to one of a dozen or so prison birthing centers in the U.S. The Greenbrier Birthing Center, located near Denmar Correctional Center, houses pregnant federal inmates.
Norma took it upon herself to make quilts for these incarcerated mothers and their babies. Her drive to give went down many roads indeed.
She also volunteered at a family refuge center, Pocahontas County Senior Citizens, High Rocks and for Hospice until she was 89-years-old.
Jean Jackson, Norma’s niece by marriage, said of her, “Everybody who ever met her loved her. They just couldn’t help it. She was as kind a person as you could ever meet.
“I was thrilled when Norma became my aunt. She loved her friends and family unconditionally.”
That is just a sample of the magnanimous personality that was Norma Mikesell. So many have been the recipient of her kindness and generosity that it is impossible to know the positive effect this one woman had on the people she came in contact with.
We all give at times, to some extent or the other, but few make the act of sharing their entire life’s work. Norma Mikesell, of Pocahontas County, World War II veteran, nurse, caregiver, car-giver and quilter, is one who did.
As for her last quilt, it is a beautiful fall motif that perfectly reflects the crimson and gold leaves of the trees just outside my window on this October morning. She started this quilt but died before she had a chance to finish it. But, a woman like Norma has many friends, friends who are not about to let her down.
Norma Mikesell’s final quilt, the one she last touched with those ever-giving hands, was proudly completed by two who dearly loved her, Jean Jackson and Bonnie Gifford.
Rest in Peace, Norma, you have made this world a much better place for those you left behind.