For decades, Julia J. “Judy” Norrell ’57 has lived near the center of power, but for her, success isn’t about power. It’s about “those Eureka! moments when we can still learn.”
Part of her learning journey took place at Ohio Wesleyan, where Dr. V. E. Devadutt, a philosophy professor from India challenged her to widen her perspective. “I had been pontificating about a recent tour of European art, as only a college student can do, and he observed that educated Americans know about Europe, but educated Easterners know both Eastern and Western culture. He commented I should come back and talk to him when I had seen India.”
Norrell says she was “infuriated. I went back to my room in Austin Hall and tore up my application for a Fulbright in France. Instead, I applied for a Fulbright to India. I had no idea that Fulbrights for India were almost never given to undergraduates, but I got one, and so did one other undergraduate from Reed College.”
Immediately upon her graduation, Norrell took off for India. “That was a vintage year in my life,” she says, “living in a culture not my own, and where no one cared whether I was a Republican or a Democrat. In America it mattered; in India, it didn’t. My father was in Congress [William Frank Norrell served in the House of Representatives from Arkansas from 1939 to 1961; following his death in 1961, his wife, Catherine, was elected to serve out the remainder of his last term with Judy serving as her campaign manager; after Congress, Catherine went on to a distinguished career in the State Department] and politics was a staple at our house. My time in India, combined with the liberal arts experience I had at Ohio Wesleyan, did widen my perspective, both worldwide and parochially.”
“When I returned to the United States, I was planning to go to grad school to study philosophy but my father was ill, and he was concerned that ‘philosophy bakes no bread’,” Norrell continues. “He very much wanted me to go to law school, so I became a lawyer. I never practiced, though.”
Buttressed by her law school experience, Norrell found herself gravitating toward government and became a lobbyist. Norrell was unique in the diversity of clients she represented. Throughout the years, she represented clients as diverse as the National Arts Trust Fund, the International Association of Machinists, the Business Roundtable, and the American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI). After retiring from ACLI, Norrell owned a successful private government relations firm, representing clients in the insurance and business community.
When asked about the most satisfactory accomplishment in her lobbying career, Norrell pointed to the enactment of the legislation establishing Title IX which she was involved with while she served as Legislative Director of the National League of Women Voters. “Joe Paterno and the college coaches strongly opposed the legislation and when we began, we felt we were tilting at windmills. On Capitol Hill, they wondered what ‘the girls’ wanted—and by ‘girls’ they meant not only the athletes, but also the women who supported the legislation,” she says with a chuckle. “We prevailed because we persisted and persisted. I was pleased that Senator Dale Bumpus of my home state of Arkansas voted with us. Having just watched this year’s Olympics, I have to say I feel that getting Title IX passed was a real success that has produced lasting effects.”
Throughout her lifetime, Norrell has collected art. “My beginnings in art were small,” she says. “My first purchase was in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where I traveled with a friend and her family. I was a teenager, and I bought two or three small pieces from an Arkansas artist. My friend’s father was appalled at the money I spent ($25 at the time) and thought it a little odd that a teenager was buying art at all. “While I was buying art, my friend, Mary Louise, was buying mascara,” remarks Norrell.
“On reflection, I think art served as a way for me to reconcile many of the difficult political issues of the day. By that I mean I am a Southerner and I was coming of age at the time of great crisis in the South. The Civil Rights struggle became essential to my view of the world and art became the lens through which I filtered my thoughts and feelings.”
Her collection was first recognized by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., with a show called Spirits of the South that depicted the rural South during the Depression. This was soon followed by a much larger show, Myth, Memory, and Imagination, organized by the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina and included 350 pieces. This show traveled for three years across the U.S. to Little Rock, Arkansas; Grand Forks, North Dakota; Memphis, Tennessee; Lynchburg, Virginia; Augusta, Georgia; Columbus, Georgia; Hampton, Virginia; and Naples, Florida. This show dealt totally with the South and Southern art. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. then organized and curated a show called Common Ground, which for the first time went beyond Southern imagery and included national and international work reflecting all the major world religions. This show traveled as well to Raleigh, North Carolina and Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Recently, the Corcoran Gallery of Art mounted a show, Shadows of History: Photographs of the Civil War from the Collection of Julia J. Norrell. “I was pleased that President Obama and his family were the first to see the show before it opened to the public,” says Norrell. The show will travel next to the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia, where the bulk of Norrell’s Southern collection resides.
Norrell’s life has been dotted with memorable success and high points, but reflecting on her experience, she says, “Of course, you need money to do things, but success isn’t about the accumulation of wealth. Success really consists of the ability to communicate and be of benefit to others.” For example, Norrell says, “I could talk about civil rights until I was blue in the face, but the art tells the story and helps people understand. Many people today—both black and white—have no idea what went on in the early years of the movement. The art opens eyes and stimulates interest. That constitutes success for me.”