An Amazing Woman with a Pioneering Spirit

A little girl from Merlynston, Melbourne, called Norma Joyce, had a humble beginning and ended up marrying an American GI (soldier), left all she knew to make a pioneering move to the U.S.A.  She knew no-one, it was a new life and a good one until she fell critically ill. The family returned with their children to Melbourne, destitute, but she rebuilt her life from the ashes.  This life story has everything, love, faith, courage, adventure, mystery, broken trust, hope and endurance.

Norma’s childhood was filled with adventure. She had three brothers and one day in 1933 they decided to head to Essendon Airport on foot.  “We all decided to see Kingsford Smith land his aeroplane, so my cousin and I pushed our prams across the paddocks following my brothers who were on bikes.  (Sir Charles Kingsford Smith was the first aviator to do the Trans Pacific flight from the U.S.A. to Australia in 1928 and, in the same year, the first flight across Australia from Point Cook in Melbourne to Western Australia.)  After seeing him land, my brothers all rode off toward home. My cousin and I were so scared that we would lose sight of the boys that we left our prams in the paddock and ran after them.”  Normal tells me, “I loved tennis but I was a Protestant and my friend was Catholic, so on Sunday we would go to our own church but first we hid our tennis racquets and after services we met and played tennis. It was the day of rest, so we ought not play on Sundays.”

In 1939, Norma tells me with excitement, “My parents and us children went visiting in Gippsland and fires started (Black Friday).  We were all trapped. Then my father did back-burning and showed the other men how to do it, as the fire raged around them.  We were expected to perish but were saved by the back burning.”  Our rescuers said, “Oh! You’re alive.”

As a teenager Norma had a passion for music and she was accepted into the Conservatorium of Music as she loved playing the violin.  One wet day, she slipped in the street, breaking her nose and arm, never to perform in public on her much loved violin.  This same violin is now in the U.S.A. as her granddaughter has it and performs with it. 

Norma had a number of jobs including as a bookkeeper, and a wages clerk until in 1944 when she married John Wunsch, an American GI.  They met in Melbourne during WW2 as he was posted to PNG and her brother brought him home while John was on leave.  When Pearl Harbor was hit by the Japanese, he was recalled into the army.  He loved Australia but decided to return with his family to the U.S.A.  They travelled around the U.S.A. with his work and one of their neighbour’s was a Klu Klux Klan farmer and she told me they were mostly lovely people.  However, Norma’s health deteriorated so they had to return to Melbourne so she could recuperate and receive help from her family and with her children.  Upon suddenly leaving the U.S.A., her husband decided to make his mother power of attorney so she could sell their house for them.  His mother sold the house for them but kept the entirety of the money so they were left destitute, having to live in a bungalow owned by her parents.  The toll on John of this devastating loss and betrayal along with his war illnesses of malaria and PTS destroyed his health so he was unable to work.  Norma with her indomitable spirit went off to work as a waitress at night with low wages because office work was not allowed for married women.  Sadly John died in 1980, so finally Norma moved to her lovely little granny flat in Kilsyth behind her much loved daughter Barbara’s home.

In 1988 her son John who lived in the U.S. had his six year old daughter diagnosed with nasal cancer, so his wife had to be at the hospital to be with her daughter.  So, Norma headed off to the U.S. by herself to care for him and his other children.  She is a woman with a great capacity for love, compassion and courage. Norma tells me on more than one occasion that the greatest influence and passion in her life is her family- “they always come first.” Her family is her legacy and she tells me, “I always make sure my family are well and looked after.”  She had five children, Margaret, Alice, John, Paul and Barbara along with 19 grandchildren and 39 great grandchildren and two great, great grandchildren.  Norma says her achievements in life have been to work hard all her life, treat people fairly and without prejudice or judgement.  When I ask her who she most admires, without hesitation she says with pride, “Barbara my daughter, she’s thoughtful, always, helps and never thinks of herself, she has looked after me forever and a day.”

Norma is a quietly spoken lady and she sits opposite me dressed in a stunning royal blue outfit as she tells me of her faith.  Her great grandparents broke tradition because as couple they were Protestant and Catholic but chose to follow the Protestant religion instead of converting to Catholicism which was the expected way to go.  Norma and her husband John made themselves a momentous decision which shocked their family.  She tells me quietly, “My husband and I decided to join the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints in 1959, definitely breaking tradition.”  She says, “Our family thought we were nuts but I am still happy after all these years, they are lovely people.  We are just normal people, if you believe in God and the commandments, that’s it.”  When I ask her what she would be willing to die for she says, “I would refuse if someone tried to force me to lie, I would say tough if you put me in jail or put me to death.”

So, with Norma at the grand old age of 96, I ask her about the changes she has seen over all those years.  Well she says, “The way the traffic goes- they speed along, not following the speed limits.  Also, as a child we would catch a tram, train, walk or go by horse and cart. I remember catching trains years ago as an adult and school children would always let us (adults) in first and give us a seat but nowadays that doesn’t exist.  They all don’t look around, I feel they don’t care.”

 She remembers that her family was the first in town to get gas and electricity.

Norma also remembers as a child that all her family would stand around her mother’s piano, it was an 1865 Schwetchten piano and sing along together.  So much has changed over the past years of Norma’s life but her love for her family and God have remained steadfast. Her name means rule and like the Proverbs 31 woman she rules her family well.  In the photo in this article Norma sits in front of her mother’s piano with her daughter Barbara with the four generations of her much loved family.  Truly an amazing woman with a fascinating story that had to be told.

Lynette Hayhurst