The Hocke Net

1.19.12 - Ken Hocke Blog photo Extraordinary woman

June 3, 2013

On Saturday, I attended the christening of the U.S. Coast Guard’s latest Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutter (FRC), Margaret Norvell, held on the Mississippi riverfront in New Orleans.

Built at Bollinger Shipyards Inc. in Lockport, La., the 154'x25'5"x9'6" FRCs can reach speeds of 28 knots, survive through Sea State 6, and feature active fin stabilization. (The patrol boats were the subject of a WorkBoatfeature article in the February 2013 issue.) The Coast Guard plans to acquire up to 58 of the new cutters.

The FRCs are named for past enlisted heroes of the USCG. Which brings me to Margaret “Madge” Norvell. She served for 41 years with the U.S. Lighthouse Service, which merged with the Coast Guard in 1939. Norvell took over as keeper of the Head of Passes Light (lighthouse) at the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1891 after her husband accidently drowned while serving as the original keeper.

Her list of accomplishments in that dangerous position is too long to list in this space, but there is one that deserves special mention.

In 1924, Norvell transferred to the New Canal Light on Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans. Two years later, a Navy airplane went down in the lake during a storm. Norvell rowed for two hours in the tempest, found the pilot alive, got him into the boat, and rowed them both back to the safety of the lighthouse.

I mention this incident because I know Lake Pontchartrain well. I’ve even been on the lake in a rowboat in my younger days, but not during a storm. That body of water is big (over 600 sq. miles), shallow (16' depth) and mean when brought to a boil.

What she did is nothing short of extraordinary. In fact, during the ceremony and the party that followed, I heard the word “extraordinary” used to describe her and her exploits numerous times — deservedly so.

Asked about being a woman in a position usually reserved for men, she said, “There isn’t anything unusual in a woman keeping a light in her window to guide men folks home. I just happen to keep a bigger light than most women because I have got to see that so many men get safely home.”

Margaret Norvell kept that light going until 1932 when she retired at the age of 68. She died two years later.


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