Mother began the memoir she wrote more than two decades ago by telling us that during the Fall of 1996 she was visiting with two of her sisters in the home of Eloise Woodard, a sister-in-law who lived in Orangeburg, SC, about 15 miles from where Mother was born.
Craven Barns, a neighbor of Aunt Eloise, came and began shaking hands. When he came to Mother, Aunt Eloise said, “This is Colene.”
Mr. Barns looked at her and said, “We’ve never met, Colene, but I know you.”
“When I was 10 years old, the mail carrier, Mr. Byrd, delivered a telegram to Hopewell school for Mr. and Mrs. Willie Woodard. Another boy and I were given the telegram to deliver.
“Maude Agnes was in the kitchen.
“We handed her the telegram and waited while she opened it and read, ‘Colene is in Africa!’
“We ran back to our schoolhouse, telling everyone the message of the telegram.”
Mr. Barns told his classmates that Maude and Willie Woodard now knew that their oldest daughter and her husband Will, had arrived. Will had sent the cablegram on June 16, 1940 from the post office at Libenge, a town in the northwest corner of the Belgian Congo.
From a two story, white-framed house in the low country of South Carolina, God had chosen a young woman to take Jesus Christ to the Ngbaka tribe in the Belgian Congo.
It was that calling that shaped her life, and she gave all her resources and talents to be a faithful steward of that calling. Dad was the visionary who inspired my brothers and me, and Mother’s practical, everyday astuteness and commitment to Jesus shaped our lives. Through the years we saw her relentless missionary focus. She wanted everyone she met to know Jesus, and she wanted her sons to do right.
Mother and Dad were missionaries on furlough from the Ubangi territory. Dad taught first at Columbia Bible College (now Columbia International University, Colubmia, SC) and then at Trinity Bible College (now Trinity International University, Bannockburn, Ill.), Wheaton College Graduate School, Jos Evangelical Theological School (Nigeria) and Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, Miss., and Charlotte, NC). After a year the Evangelical Free Church asked him to stay at Trinity and not return to the Congo.
Mother raised us boys and went to work so that the family would have steady income. Dad always was the last one paid at Trinity, and sometimes his pay was several months’ late.
When I was growing up, I cannot remember a morning when Mother was not up before 6 am, and she never was in bed until at least 10 pm. She was driven to serve others, and she never seemed tired. She would cook dinner in the morning; work all day in an office in Palatine; and drive to Evanston and back, two or three times a week to complete a B.A. degree at National College of Education. She had a degree from what was then Columbia Bible College, but it did not have accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools when she attended. She needed a degree from an accredited school in order to get a teaching certificate. After getting a teaching position, she completed an MA from the National Louis University before being sent back several years later to get special preparation to be the district’s specialist for perceptually challenged students. In the fall of 1963 she became one of the first teachers in Illinois to teach those with learning disabilities.
When asked by her principal why she was so effective with these students, she said, “Because they know I love them.”
For Mother her Lord was the most important person in her life. When she was young, nobody in her family was a believer. She told us that she looked up at the stars in the dark Buckhead, South Carolina, night as she walked on the sandy road in front of the family farmhouse, and she knew there had to be a God. She asked the Lord to help her understand, and she found the Savior and gave her life to Him.
He directed every aspect of her life.
She was a southerner.
Her ancestors had helped to establish New Bern, NC, in 1710, long before the American Revolution. But for her, home was wherever her Lord told her to live. She lived in Congo, Illinois, Nigeria, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma.
We considered her a brilliant organizer and manager. When she met you, she knew who you were. She knew your character and your talents, but you usually did not realize it.
Her self-deflecting demeanor was because she was not the center of her life. Jesus was. Everything she did was to help others to know Jesus or to know him better.
During Greg Waybright’s tenure as President of Trinity, he visited the elementary school that one of his children attended. During a conversation with the principal, the teacher said she had known another president of Trinity. When she had been a young teacher at the school, she had been a colleague of Colene Norton whose husband had been President of Trinity.
“I’m a Christian today because of Colene Norton,” she told Dr. Waybright.
Several years earlier, Mother had received a letter from Tammy, a woman in Wisconsin.
She had been less than three years of age when Mom and Dad took her two brothers and another neighbor and his sister to Sunday School each week.
This was before seat belts, and eight of us would pile into the car with Mom and Dad, sitting on each other’s laps for the ride to church.
“I have wanted to thank you for many years,” Tammy wrote, and I finally found your address. Because you took us to Sunday school, our entire family knows Jesus.
The writer of Proverbs 31 describes this kind of woman who watches diligently for the welfare of her family:
A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies. …
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
Give her the reward she has earned,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
Mother was a woman of noble character.
She has prayed for her loved ones for years.
Everyday I have thanked the Lord for Mother’s prayers, and everyday I have asked the Lord to help me pray intelligently and earnestly for our loved ones.
As a young untenured faculty member during the mid-1970s, before all the current security at airports, I would fly home on holidays.
When I landed at O’Hare, Mom and Dad would be standing at the gate, and I would know I was home.
That will not be the last time.
In her book about her life she wrote that she would wait for each of us in heaven, just inside the Eastern Gate.
Today, we do not need a telegram to tell us where Mother is. She has ended her journey here, and she is waiting for each of us just inside the Eastern Gate.
And when our journey ends, and we see her, we will know that we are home.
OBITUARY FOR COLENE WOODARD NORTON 1914-2016
August 11, 2016
Colene Norton died on August 10, 2016 at her residence in Go Ye Village, Tahlequah, OK. She and her husband, Will, had lived there in retirement since February 2004. She celebrated her 102th birthday last May.
Colene was born to Maude and Willie Woodard on May 19, 1914 on a farm outside of Smoaks, SC, and she earned an undergraduate degree from Columbia International University and an M.A. degree from the National Louis University, Evanston, Ill.
After she and Will were married, they served two terms as missionaries for the Evangelical Free Church in the Ubangi Territory of the Belgian Congo. Stationed at Tandala, Colene worked with Congolese women in education and personal development and home schooled her children. Upon returning to the United States, Colene ran an in-home babysitting service before taking a position doing office work at Sellstrom Manufacturing while she obtained her teaching certificate.
Colene began her teaching career in 1958 as a classroom teacher while completing her graduate work in education. After completing courses at Northwestern University for teaching perceptually challenged students, Colene taught students with learning challenges, beginning in 1963, and was named Teacher of the Year in Arlington Heights, Ill.
When asked by her principal why she was so effective with her students, she said, “Because they know I love them.”
Colene and Will were active in teaching high school Sunday school at the Orchard Evangelical Free Church, Arlington Heights campus, and also were instrumental in the “Homebuilders” adult Sunday school class at the Wheaton Evangelical Free Church.
Colene in her early post-missionary years was a featured speaker at a weeklong girls camp in Williams Bay Wisconsin and directed evening Vacation Bible School for adults as well as children at the Arlington Heights Free Church.
After retiring from teaching, Colene lived in Jos, Nigeria, where her husband was the founding principal of Jos Evangelical Theological Seminary. She later lived in Jackson, MS, and Charlotte, NC, where Will taught at Reformed Theological Seminary.
Her ancestors helped to establish New Bern, NC, in 1710. However, for her, “home” was wherever she could serve others.
Her family and colleagues considered her a brilliant organizer and manager. When she met you she immediately knew you. She never met a stranger.
She is survived by Will, her husband of 77 years; sons, Will, Jr. (Susan), Peter (Jean) and Seth (Linda); grandchildren: Kathryn Vaughan, Inga Norton, Elisabeth Taylor, Marta Klock, Caroline Smith, William Norton, Mary Margaret Norton and Laine Norton; great-grandchildren: Coal Taylor, Will Taylor, Aria Taylor, Connor Vaughan, Carson Vaughan, Bella Smith, Noah Smith and Kinsey Lee Klock; and a brother, James Woodard. She was preceded in death by son Timothy Lambie and daughter Betsy Lynn and two grandsons, Austin Kinsey Vaughan and Walker Lewis Vaughan.
Hultgren Funeral Home, 304 Main Street, Wheaton, Ill., is handling funeral arrangements.
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