Notebook > Lifestyle
Will and Colene Norton
Columbia International University
Will and Colene Norton

Love for the long haul

Lifestyle | Will and Colene Norton say the secret to 73 years of 'compatibility' in marriage is God

Issue: "The new urban frontier," March 9, 2013

What does it take to be married 73 years? Will Norton, 98, and his wife Colene Woodward Norton, 98, say the secret is God. 

The Nortons met in 1936 at Columbia (S.C.) International University. He was the son of Swedish immigrants, who grew up in Chicago. She was a South Carolina belle. They married in June 1939 and less than a year later were headed to the Belgian Congo to establish the Bible Institute of Ubangi.

During World War II travel was difficult. The Nortons found passage on a 1918 freighter leaving Port Arthur, Texas, loaded with high-octane aviation fuel in 50-gallon drums. As Norton describes the journey—why they got off in Sierra Leone rather than Liberia; how they found passage on a French ship to Cameroon and then took a train to the end of the line; how they ended up in a Presbyterian mission and from there rented a pickup truck; and how they concluded the 2½-month journey with “a three-hour ride in a dug–out canoe through pouring rain”—he emphasizes that good planning didn’t get them to Africa. God did.

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That sensibility permeates the Nortons’ discussions of marriage. Like missions, marriage is ludicrous from the world’s perspective. How can you know when you marry that you’ll be compatible 73 years later? Norton says, “As a married couple, when you know God has brought you together and you have begun with God, you continue on with Him.” That confidence strengthened them through the hardest times, which included the death of two children in infancy. Norton says, “Tragedies happen, but in each tragedy we discovered a new element of the grace and love of God.” 

Will Norton’s papers reside in the Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College. They document a long life of service as a college teacher, dean, and seminary president. They include papers from his 10 years of service in the Belgian Congo from 1940 to 1950 and his three years in Jos, Nigeria (1980-1983), where he was the founding principal of JETS seminary. 

During all those years of service, the Nortons raised three sons, who taught them more about God’s love: “Love expanded and grew in this dimension. …  Our sons were brought into our interactions with God.” Colene Norton worked for many years as a special education teacher. She also worked alongside her husband at his various seminary jobs, using her energies to organize prayer and encourage women preparing to serve the Lord. 

Norton’s advice to young couples is good advice for any believer: “In all the tragic events, remember the love of Christ. Do not be surprised when the battles come. Expect them. Read and learn His word in the Bible. God will tell you what to do. As your relationship deepens with Him, your relationship with your spouse will deepen, too.”

All those years of living by that wisdom helped the Nortons when he turned 65 and faced mandatory retirement from Wheaton. A former student asked him to consider going to Jos, Nigeria, to start a seminary. He wondered, “Could I manage now in a new setting and in a new culture?” Colene, who was 66, prayed for confirmation and God showed her “what matters is serving Him and doing the will of God.” The next morning, she began packing.

The Nortons now live in Go Ye Village in Tahlequah, Okla. White-haired and bearded, Will Norton may not see as well as he used to. They exchange gentle banter as Norton pushes Colene in her wheelchair around the retirement village. The couple’s 74th anniversary comes in June, and Norton says, “We thank Him that He is Lord of our union, of our oneness in marriage.” —with reporting by Winnifred Verbica and Pearle Salters

Take a pass

NO LAUGHING MATTER: Actress Raven-Symoné during a performance of the Broadway musical <em>Sister Act</em>
Joan Marcus/The Hartman Group/AP
NO LAUGHING MATTER: Actress Raven-Symoné during a performance of the Broadway musical Sister Act

The Hollywood/Broadway edition of the “Stockholm syndrome”: Coming soon to a theater near you?

Let me explain. News coverage of hostage crises typically feature psychologists intoning about the “Stockholm syndrome.” The term originated nearly 40 years ago in Sweden when bank employees, held hostage for six days and then freed, praised the perpetrators. 

The syndrome is not rare, according to the FBI: One out of four despairing hostages starts seeing any small act of humanity by the captors as a huge positive, and later defends them. Variants of such “traumatic bonding” include battered wife syndrome, where a man beats, harasses, and intimidates a woman until she, “like a whipped dog,” is ready to lick his feet. 

Some evangelicals, abused for years by mainstream culture creators, go Stockholm. Did the Matrix movies include some lines that (with stretching) seem Christian-like? Praise them, praise them. Does Time or Newsweek have a depiction of Jesus on its cover prior to Easter or Christmas? Buy a copy at the checkout stand. 

I saw in New York City last year one evangelical Stockholm syndrome example: Publicists were trying to get church groups to come to the Broadway musical Sister Act, based on the 1992 movie with Whoopi Goldberg, and they were having some success, according to Variety. When I went, I could see why: The lead singers had talent, the music was lively, and some of the jokes were about legalism and empty ritual.

And yet, the butt of many Sister Act jokes was not religiosity but God, and the whole idea of holiness. The god in the play was so small. The basic feel-good message was that people need friends but God is an option: Sister Act evangelized for a one-dimensional theology, all horizontal and 

no vertical. Are we so desperate to see the existence of Christianity recognized in a musical that, Stockholm-style, we’ll suffer abuse and like it?

The church buses were not enough to keep Sister Act going: It closed soon after I saw it, so I never wrote a review—good riddance! But it’s now having a national tour: The 2013 schedule shows it’s just finished Boston and Pittsburgh, and from now to June will be in Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Houston, Tempe, Orange County, Seattle, Kansas City, Baltimore, and San Antonio.

If someone says to you, “Brother, here’s a musical with religion that you should see,” I recommend that you reply, “Sister, I need to wash my hair tonight.”  —Marvin Olasky

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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