On June 1, 2013, about fifty descendants of lighthouse keeper Margaret Norvell were on hand in New Orleans, Louisiana to see the commissioning of the new USCG Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutter (FRC) Margaret Norvell (WPC 1105) the fifth FRC named for a Coast Guard enlisted hero distinguished by his or her acts of valor.
This new series of high-speed cutters, made by Bollinger Shipyards in Louisiana, will replace some of the fleet’s aging ships and will aid in the Coast Guard’s mission to save lives, enforce U.S. and international maritime law, and ensure security along the 95,000 miles of U.S. coastline. Lt. Thomas Osborn Jr. assumed command of the Margaret Norvell, which will be stationed in Miami.
Margaret, or “Madge” Norvell served under the U.S. Lighthouse Service as a lighthouse keeper at three different lighthouses in Louisiana. Her career began when she took over her husband’s duties at the Head of Passes Light in 1891 after he drowned, leaving her with two young children. For the next 41 years, Madge demonstrated the Coast Guard’s core values of honor, respect, and devotion to duty in her service to mariners, as well as her community, serving at Port Ponchartrain Light and then the West End Light (also known as the New Canal Light) until she retired in 1932.
Among her more notable actions was providing relief to over 200 people after a devastating hurricane hit Louisiana in 1893, resulting in great loss of life and destroying the community surrounding her lighthouse. In addition to providing food and shelter, Madge started a fund to help rebuild the area.
In 1926, a Navy pilot crashed into Lake Ponchartrain during a storm. Margaret rowed two hours in the raging water to rescue the pilot and bring him safely back to the lighthouse.
Margaret Norvell’s tenure spanned decades of history, including the Spanish-American War and World War I. For many years, she climbed the lighthouse steps multiple times to light the oil in the lamps, until she served at the New Canal Light which had electricity.
Once asked about carrying on her duties as a woman, she remarked, “There isn’t anything unusual in a woman keeping a light in her window to guide menfolks 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.” Appropriately, twenty-five percent of the Margaret Norvell’s crew is women.
Margaret’s great granddaughter, Barbara Norvell Perrone, is the sponsor of the new cutter. In her speech at the ceremony, she asked the Norvell family to adopt the twenty-member crew of the cutter as family members and remember them in their thoughts and prayers.
One of the highlights of the ceremony was the “setting of the first watch” when Margaret’s great great grandson, USAF Major Michael Norvell, presented the long-glass to the First Officer of the Deck, who carried the symbolic instrument on to the ship.
The ship’s coat-of-arms symbolizes the Port Ponchartrain Lighthouse and its beacon, the stormy seas Margaret fought, and the motto “True Steady Unfailing,” taken from her quote in an 1897 article. When discussing her occupation as a female lighthouse keeper, she said, “After all, it seems a natural and womanly thing, doesn’t it, to keep a bright light burning to guide someone home? That’s what we are all doing: but mine is to shine far out at sea and be so true, steady and unfailing that sailors may dare to steer by it.”
The Margaret Norvell has a unique mascot, Lorita, which stands watch over the ship’s bridge console. Lorita is a stuffed plush parrot named after Madge’s pet parrot. Apparently Madge had a penchant for Irving Berlin music which she played on her Victrola. Lorita learned to sing one of her favorites, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and supposedly wooed an escaped male parrot with her song. The crew gifted their sponsor, Barbara Norvell Perrone, with a “Lorita” of her own.
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 2013 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.