Margaret Allida Norton was born in Aurora Illinois, July 15, 1912, the third daughter of Charles and Edith Case Norton. She spent most of her childhood in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Margaret recounted fond memories of her mother, a former teacher crippled by arthritis, sitting with the children around the table helping them with their homework. Charles was a traveling textbook salesman who was away all week, but when he came home on Friday evening would lie on the floor so his four kids could wrestle with him. Margaret’s parents were strict, with a strong sense of right and wrong. Margaret remembered her family life as very happy and very careful about money.
In her early teen years Margaret struggled with petit mal seizures, and the black outs were often embarrassing. During one embarrassing moment she retreated to the cloakroom where her teacher found her after school and walked her out to sit on a park bench and talk about coming back to school the next day. Such experiences may have contributed to her life-long support for the vulnerable. By high school Margaret hit her stride, participating in high school drama, clubs and other activities. She dreamed of being a brain surgeon. “ I would drive a big car with the top down and a German Shepherd by my side.” She tried to excel in everything she did. At graduation she was voted most popular girl, but just missed being valedictorian because in the spring the captain of the football team, and his yellow Buick convertible, lured her away from her school work.
Margaret studied education and history at the University of Michigan and. In the summer of her sophomore year she participated in a service project in New York City. There she met the shy Clarence “Mike” Yarrow, who had just graduated from Cornell University. In January of 1936 Margaret got a call from Mike explaining that he had received a fellowship to study in Rome for the next year and would she marry him and come along! Margaret remembered, “I was studying for an exam at the time and had no time for jokes. I said as much, and he assured me he was serious, and we could do it, if we asked for coins, instead of wedding presents.” She married Mike in June of 1936, and soon after they biked through Europe, trying to avoid ‘Heil Hitler’ sessions at the German youth hostels. In Rome, Mike did research on the philosophical origins of Italian fascism and Margaret audited courses. When they returned to New York City, Margaret worked developing Sunday school curriculum at Riverside Church while Mike wrote his dissertation. They became Quakers, being drawn to the peace testimony and work with the poor.
With his degree, Mike got a job at the University of Mississippi and they moved to Oxford. In 1939 Margaret was asked to teach American History to the northern football players because they didn’t understand “southern.” She remembered “her boys” fondly. She gave birth to her first son Michael in March 1940 and her second son, Doug in 1942.
During World War II, Mike volunteered to direct a crew of conscientious objectors fighting California forest fires, and Margaret taught English and history at Pacific Ackworth, a Friends’ school in Temple City, CA. Her son Michael was one of her students (then and always: even after she turned 100 she was correcting his grammar and instructing him on the use of vivid language.) In 1951 she gave birth to her third son Edward Burr. The Yarrows helped found Pacific Oaks, an early childhood teaching and training school in Pasadena, CA.
In 1952 the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia hired Mike. The Yarrows moved to Swarthmore, PA, where Margaret helped her sons adjust to an affluent suburban community. As a Girl Scout leader, Margaret took a mixed-race working-class troop to Mexico and integrated a segregated Girl Scout camp in Texas along the way.
When Mike was transferred to the AFSC office in Des Moines, IA in 1958, the Yarrows tried to sell their Swarthmore house to a black family and received much hostility from some Quakers and others in the community; there were visits from delegations of townspeople, trash left on the porch, and threatening phone calls.
Upon returning to Swarthmore in the mid-1960s Margaret was appointed director of Fellowship House in nearby Media, PA at a time of racial tension between white liberals and black power advocates. She was able to lead both camps to work together again on constructive projects.
When the Yarrows retired they first spent a year at Woodbrooke, the Quaker Study center in England, from which they were recruited to be Quakers in residence in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was a time of great peril in the Irish capital. While Mike was bringing Protestant and Catholic leaders together for secret meetings, each group having to enter the Yarrows’ home by a different entrance, Margaret was founding a community center where Catholic and Protestant women met and brought their children.
They then served as resident hosts at Quaker Meeting houses, first in Denver, then in Honolulu, before settling in Denver. They took Mountain View Friends Meeting by storm; in no time everybody clamored to have Mike or Margaret on their committee. In ‘retirement’, Margaret taught ESL classes. She became an important support for many in the Meeting.
Mike died in 1985 and her youngest son Burr suddenly in 1987. Margaret kept up her little house, living simply but entertaining often. She continued as an important member of the Monthly Meeting, and served a stint as the Howard and Anna Brinton Memorial visitor to a circuit of Western meetings. She tutored many immigrants, who became good friends. On one visit from her grandson Matt in her 80’s she surprised her guests by climbing on the back of his motorcycle for a ride.
At age 93, Margaret moved to Washington state to be closer to her sons’ families. She delighted in the lush foliage, if not the rain that fostered it. After a serious fall with damage to her brain, she wrote, “This is what hurts. I may not be Margie again. I fear my memory has been permanently damaged.” She had indeed lost some of her memories, but not the indomitable spirit, nor the great capacity for listening to others and making them feel understood and appreciated. As her granddaughter Delia reflected, “Around you there was room for everyone to be a hero.”
She spent the last three years of her life in supported living at Horizon House in Seattle, where she received loving care from a staff of many nationalities. She joined an active writers’ group there, and, with the help of her neice Nancy Cope who lived there, participated in some of the activities provided. She continued to receive visitors, from the East Coast, from Japan, from Denver. When it was pointed out that she had more visitors than anyone else on her floor, ever humble, she found that hard to believe. She celebrated her 100th birthday on July 15, 2012 with many of her nieces and nephews who had come from as far away as Israel and Germany.
She is survived by two sons, four grandchildren and five great granddaughters.
She was remembered at memorial meetings well attended in both Seattle and Denver as a quintessential good listener, a great support to others, and a Friend who brought a calm and loving spirit to every situation.