Kirk Norris was a man gifted with a strong ambition to do what is right for communities that are overlooked, left behind, or under-served. His wife, Judith, recalled that just about on their very first date, he told her he planned to work at improving education, and this was a fire that burned ceaselessly in him until January 24, 2019 when his life was cut short by a brain hemorrhage.
It is for this reason that his friend, John Spears, stepped forward to honor him with the founding gift to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s newly inaugurated Legacy Fund.
Through his Legacy Fund gift, John wished to raise up the work a Quaker of Kirk’s character and gifts will do in a lifetime and mark the grace and joy with which Kirk tackled literacy in Trenton. He wanted others to be inspired, as he was, by Kirk’s extraordinary leadership and vision.
The Legacy Fund is a restricted PYM fund that is invested to create annual fund income in perpetuity. At the close of each year, with their permission, an alphabetical listing of Legacy donors will be printed in PYM’s annual report, and donors or honorees will have their biographical summaries posted on the PYM website and linked to each donor or honoree’s name.
John felt there would be something special about opening this Legacy Fund with an inaugural gift to honor Kirk Norris. Kirk’s relentless passion to improve educational outcomes swept other into action—and he motivated others to do good.
Kirk exemplified an engaged and committed Quaker, first as a member at Newtown Friends Meeting, and later at Solebury Friends Meeting. His great love for community led him into committee and board work at Mercer Street Friends (a Quaker affiliated/funded anti-poverty charitable social service organization), for 44 years, even as he worked on behalf of three separate charter schools in Trenton. A believer in democracy, and a registered Democrat, he volunteered during each election. As a Quaker he let his life speak by working on local civic associations long before retiring from full-time work, tirelessly promoting literacy throughout his career.
Born Frank Newkirk Norris, on June 23,1934, Kirk was educated at the Wilkinsburg Public School before attending college at Pennsylvania State University. From there he turned to a global career in design, construction, and engineering, working in America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. An avid fan of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, and the arts and crafts design movement, he planned vacations with his wife Judith around visits to Wright’s buildings.
He is considered one of the founders of the Trenton Literacy Movement. Foundation Academy’s CEO, Graig Weiss, recalls that Kirk “felt there was no better place to start than in the public schools, which outraged him with their low expectations for students in the Trenton area. But it was more than just about the schools, Kirk understood that families standing behind these under-served students also needed more support.”
John Spears notes that “the first words that come to mind when I think of my friend, Kirk Norris, are ‘Education is the way out of poverty’ and ‘Education is the civil rights issue of our time.’ I have such admiration for Kirk: He was a tireless, determined and quiet and friendly volunteer/activist, constantly seeking – with others – to improve the lives of students and their families in Trenton.”
John felt that Kirk was a partner in addressing educational shortfalls in Trenton, and “although Kirk might have thought of our partnership as 50/50, I think of it as 90/10: Kirk 90, me 10: Kirk just worked and worked away at it: Board service at Foundation (Academy), NAACP and School Board meetings, meetings with the Mayors of Trenton, with school principals, with providers of online education products, with student tutors. I bet he put in thousands of hours of service over the years. He loved the Trenton students. His moral compass was always pointed toward what was best for the students: ‘No excuses.’ A better deal for all of God’s children.”
Kirk and John first met some 20 years ago on the Mercer Street Friends board. John recalls that “in addition to having a shared God-driven interest in trying to lend a hand to people in Trenton, as Quakers, we enjoyed many conversations about our religion and our religious society.” They’d discuss politics, always without animosity, despite the fact that John is a politically active Republican and Kirk was a politically active Democrat. “We had many lunches together – with much laughter – over the years. Kirk was a very good man. I feel blessed to have known him. I miss him.”
There are other who miss Kirk, too. Here is what they had to say in their own words about Kirk and his legacy as a Friend and supporter of humankind:
“Every time I saw him, he would gently (sometimes not so gently) nudge me that we need to do more for the families in our community.” Graig Weiss, Foundation Academy
“Kirk never stopped going to college. All of life was a college for him and he wanted to keep learning and to enable everyone else to have an equal opportunity to go to college. Given our country’s horrific history of racial injustice, he was especially committed to pursuing equal educational and economic opportunities for African-Americans children in Trenton; hence his years spent supporting the NAACP, Mercer Street Friends, the Trenton Literacy Movement, and (especially and wholeheartedly these last few years) Foundation Academy … I admired Kirk’s lifelong commitment to racial justice in Trenton and beyond. That commitment was most evident in his belief that educational excellence for minorities is the civil rights issue of our times and his passionate support for the scholars attending Foundation Academy.” Bob Anderson
“What I remember most about Kirk was his tenacity and his generosity of spirit. He asked me to serve on the Mercer Street Friends Board 25 years ago. I considered that a great honor and a turning point in my life towards service … He was always available for service, staffing the Mercer Street Friends table at the Peace Fair in the hot sun, inviting Board members to speak at Solebury Meeting, making important connections for us, and supporting the Trenton Community. His relationships with other people and other organizations in Trenton created synergy with the mission of Mercer Street Friends. Kirk loved people in a way that was both personal and universal. Even when he was relentlessly pushing us to achieve his vision, he was such a sweet man…” Lisa Ogletree
“Kirk Norris was my idea of the perfect Quaker and volunteer. He cared, he listened, he showed up and he let people know quietly and respectfully if he had any concerns. He focused on getting things done. He had a wonderful smile and twinkle in his eye. I was lucky to have worked with him on a number of projects for Mercer Street Friends. His presence in the world really meant something” Ann Vaurio