Former Secretary of State Norma Paulus was a product of rural Oregon. She exemplified what individuals can do when given a chance — conquering poverty, polio and the lack of a college degree to emerge as one of Oregon’s most influential politicians.
And Paulus did so during an era in which she typically was “The Only Woman in the Room,” the title of her autobiography.
Paulus died Feb. 28, two days after another Republican secretary of state, Dennis Richardson. U.S. Rep. Greg Walden and state Sen. Betsy Johnson remarked at Richardson’s recent funeral that Paulus set the standard for her successors, regardless of political affiliation.
Both were strong, independent, transformative leaders, said Republican Walden, who represents Oregon’s 2nd Congressional District.
Democrat Johnson added that Paulus and Richardson placed the needs of Oregon ahead of their own political party. “Norma blazed her own trail and was one tough cookie,” Johnson said.
Paulus would have turned 86 on March 13, but hers certainly was a life well-lived. She was the first woman elected to statewide office in Oregon and the last Republican secretary of state until Richardson.
Norma Jean Petersen was born during the Depression to a Nebraska farm family who eventually settled near Burns in Eastern Oregon, seeking a better life.
But the family’s poverty kept her from attending college after graduating from Burns High School at age 17. Instead, she became a secretary for the Harney County district attorney. Then polio struck and she endured weeks of treatment in an iron lung. After recovering, she moved to Salem, where she went to work as a legal secretary for Chief Justice Earl Latourette of the Oregon Supreme Court.
She so impressed Latourette that he urged her to become a lawyer despite not being a college graduate. She studied part-time at the Willamette University law school while still working full-time at the Supreme Court and also being married with a young child. Her husband, Bill Paulus, whom she met at law school, eventually borrowed money from an uncle so she could quit her job and be a full-time law student.
It was a productive investment. In 1962, Norma Paulus graduated from law school with honors. Her marriage to Bill lasted 40 years until his death in 1999. Although Bill stayed in the background politically, he was a well-regarded lawyer in his own right, known for his work with school districts.
A legislator before her election as secretary of state in 1976, Norma Paulus was fearless. She stood up to the followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who tried to rig Wasco County elections by busing in homeless people to register as voters, and who contaminated salad bars in The Dalles to sicken other voters.
Later, as the state’s elected superintendent of public instruction, Paulus took on teacher unions and others who questioned her vision for school reform.
All the while, she carried a deep affection for the vastness of her state, from the coast to the mountains and the rangelands of Eastern Oregon. Everywhere she went, people seemed to know her on a first-name basis.
Paulus lost the 1986 election for governor to Democrat Neil Goldschmidt, and the Oregon Republican Party soon moved on from the centrist approach she represented — fiscally conservative and socially liberal.
As her obituary said, “She leaves a legacy of independence, fierce respect for the integrity of democratic institutions and willingness to engage adversaries or even friends in standing up for what she thought right.”
Her rural values served all of Oregon.