It was a breezy October day when Norma Fleisher settled her 86-year-old body into a foldout camp chair on a Nebraska street corner in front of the state Capitol, with the governor’s mansion directly at her back.
Norma’s been doing this every Monday from noon to 1 p.m. for 13 years, holding signs with a group of activists to protest Nebraska’s death penalty. Through snow, heat, humidity and the Great Plains’ punishing winds, Norma has been faithful to her belief that “it’s ridiculous to kill people to prove killing is wrong.”
This day was special, however. It was Norma’s last day on the street corner. She’s tired.
“I used to take an hour, maybe two- or three-hour nap every day, but yesterday I slept for five hours.” Something has to give, and this weekly trek is one of those things.
Someone in our little group of eight brought homemade ginger cookies to honor Norma’s tenure, and we chatted as people drove by. Some passers-by gawked, some turned away. Norma sat, bundled in coat and gloves, and visited in her amiable, self-deprecating Midwestern way. She’s just someone who “wants to spread the word anyway I can.”
Norma’s legs are weak, and on particularly hot or cold days, the group moves inside the Capitol rotunda to demonstrate. There, the rules say “no chairs,” so someone brings a wheelchair for Norma.
“I sit for what I stand up for,” she laughs.
On this particular day, I saw the governor emerge from his house just as I was driving away. Although he barely acknowledges the protesters, the governor, a capital punishment advocate, was always friendly. One brutally hot day, when Norma was a solitary protester, he sent someone out with ice water for her. Norma liked him despite his opinions.
When Norma retired as a certified public accountant, having raised four kids, she was a 65-year-old widow. A devout Methodist, she volunteered to be a missionary, with her eye on Africa. The Methodists had other uses for an accountant, however, and settled her in Nashville, Tenn., where she kept books for a retreat center for more than seven years.
Like many of her generation, Norma grew up accepting capital punishment as part of the justice system. But in Tennessee, she became involved with prisons and death row and had an epiphany. The Methodists have a long history of opposition to the death penalty, and they’re joined by many denominations.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has dedicated part of its website to the fight for abolition, and at a recent pro-life conference in Nebraska, we were reminded that opposing capital punishment is part of the Catholic Church’s “consistent ethic of life.”
After returning to Nebraska, Norma had one of her “harebrained ideas” as she modestly terms it. She visited all 93 counties in Nebraska — a far-flung, sometimes desolately rural trek — to talk about the death penalty.
Armed with magnetic signs on each side of her car and peanut butter and Cheez Whiz for the loneliest spots, Norma drove 4,000 miles over one summer in a 19-year-old car to find folks in every county seat with whom to talk about abolition. That adventure could probably fill a book.
Norma reminds me of many who prayerfully witness outside what used to be called the School of the Americas, outside abortion clinics, at nuclear arms facilities.
Norma’s joke about sitting for something she stands for reminded me of what Senator Paul Wellstone, the late activist from Minnesota, said: “If we don’t fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don’t really stand for them.”