Norma and her Toyota Take on the Death Penalty in Nebraska
By: Cindy Lange-Kubick / Lincoln Journal Star | Wednesday, July 13, 2011
DAVID CITY — Norma Fleisher has finished her soft serve at the Runza on Fourth Street. She’s wearing her Summer of 2011 uniform — SAS shoes, faded jeans, black fanny pack and one of two matching T-shirts she washes out at night in motel room sinks.
They say: Abolish the Death Penalty.
It’s Sunday, Day 25, County 73.
Her weathered Nebraska map — taped in the Sandhills, ripped just below Loup City — is spread across the table in the Butler County seat while the after-church hungry and the shorts-wearing young fill up on burgers and fries.
Her ’92 Tercel is parked out front, a magnetic sign on each white door with words to match her shirt.
She’s ready for a nap, the 84-year-old Lincoln woman says. A nap and then on to
Seward by supper time. County 74.
Most summers, the great-great-grandmother would be home tending her tomatoes. But last year, she decided to do this instead: Visit each of Nebraska’s 93 counties with a message.
A message she couldn’t have delivered 20 years ago: The death penalty is wrong.
On June 15, Norma backed out of her driveway and headed north. She was in Wahoo by noon, ready for lunch at the Dairy Queen on North Chestnut Street.
She had dinner in Fremont at 6. The next morning, off to West Point for breakfast. Lunch on the Pender courthouse lawn and then back to the second of many DQs to come — this time for dinner, and this time in Wayne.
8 a.m. Noon. 6 p.m. Same routine, day after day.
She carries peanut butter crackers in the Toyota and Cheez Whiz and store brand Pop Tarts for towns without cafes. She totes Diet Mt. Dew by the 12-pack.
If she doesn’t have an invite, she dines alone, parking the car where folks will see her signs. She keeps a journal in chicken-scratch pencil and reads while she waits for someone to take notice.
Sunday, she paws through a tote bag in her front seat for the novel she’s reading now, “Fools Crow” by James Welch.
She’s gone through all the books she brought, she says. Six so far.
She checks in with her son every night. She checks in with the Lord all the time.
Norma was glad to see Nebraska execute Charlie Starkweather in 1959.
Her husband carried a shotgun when he picked up two of their kids from school the day the bandy-legged murderer committed his last Lincoln crimes and fled west.
She was still in favor of the death penalty when she retired as a CPA in 1991 and decided to head to Africa as a missionary for the United Methodist Church.
The church sent her to Nashville instead. Said she wasn’t suited for a Third World country, the small woman with soft white hair and gold-rimmed glasses explains.
“I wanted to suffer for our Lord, but my biggest hardship was when they didn’t have frozen yogurt in the cafeteria.”
She spent more than seven years at the Scarritt-Bennett Center dedicated to educating laity, eliminating racism, and empowering women.
She served as the retreat center’s accounting manager.
She served by visiting prisons, too, even though she didn’t want to.
She’d started going to one of the three nearby Methodist churches. The controversial one, Norma says, in a poor neighborhood that believed what Jesus preached in Matthew 25.
Norma always had trouble with that chapter.
“I was OK feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, but when it came to visiting prisoners, I thought, "Why did Jesus want me to do that?’ “
Dalinda was the first person she met behind bars — an African American, HIV-positive, schizophrenic.
“She had the biggest heart,” Norma said.
After that, Abu, on death row for killing a drug dealer. He’s still in prison, Norma says, his case still under appeal. She went back to Nashville in 2001 to testify on his behalf.
“I told them all the good things he was doing for himself and the community.”
That story isn’t the first thing she tells strangers on her travels through Nebraska.
If she only has a small window, she starts with money.
It costs a lot more to kill someone, Norma says, than it does to keep him alive and in prison for life.
“We sit for what we stand for,” she says with a smile, the curved handle of her cane resting between her knees.Last summer, the idea that led her to David City on this steamy Sunday started to take shape.
Back in Nebraska in 1999 — after her time in Tennessee — Norma joined Nebraskans Against the Death Penalty. She became a regular at its weekly vigils.
She was sitting in front of the Governor’s Mansion when Sally Ganem came out, curious.
The first lady asked questions, and then she listened.
“Being a bleeding heart liberal, I’m not in favor of much of what our governor stands for, but I sure do like his wife.”
A few minutes later, a man on a motorcycle stopped. They had a nice chat, too. Norma didn’t change his mind, and he didn’t change hers.
But it got her thinking. Here she was in Lincoln, where lawmakers gather and citizens hold rallies calling attention to their causes — death penalty opponents included.
What about the rest of the state? Who was getting the word out in Burwell? Or Franklin? Fullerton or Stanton?
Then she thought, “You old bag you, you aren’t doing anything. Why don’t you go?”Last winter, after she’d highlighted all of the county seats in blue on a new map, she wrote letters to churches — giving preference to the Methodists — wondering if they’d be willing to host a potluck or a coffee where she could share her message.
“I reminded them that the United Methodist Church is against the death penalty and our bishop is against the death penalty.”
Last month, two nuns went to see her off that first day in Wahoo. A couple in Wayne gave her a bed for the night. Another couple — a retired minister and teacher — bought her meatloaf and mashed potatoes in Grand Island.
Albion had a breakfast for her. Six adults and a 5-year-old showed up in Grant. One man came to a salad luncheon at the church in Rushville. His 28-year-old son had been murdered in Phoenix three years ago.
“That took the wind out of my sails.”
A fellow death penalty opponent, the brother of a Lincoln woman murdered in 1980, went to see her in Central City.
On the small-town streets, people have been civil, she says. Some avoid eye contact, some smile. A few tell her they like her shirt.
When she has an audience, she tells them what she thinks executions do to us, as a society.
“We are hiring someone to take a life.”
She tells them America is the only industrialized country to execute people. She tells them Iowa does not have the death penalty, but has fewer murders per capita.
She tells them it costs “three to 10 times more” to execute someone than to keep him or her in prison for life.
“If I see them losing interest I usually quit. I don’t want to make enemies.”
Her mom was always fiscally conservative, Nancy Kail says. Washing bread wrappers, reusing foil, refusing to raise Nancy’s allowance without a good reason.
And it was the cost of executions that originally changed Norma Fleisher’s mind.
“Then, of course, she learned more and that some of the time they’re not even guilty.”
They’re all proud of their mom, Norma’s oldest daughter says.
“All of us kids agreed, we didn’t want her to do it, but we also knew better than to even attempt to talk her out of it.”
An 84-year-old lady in a car with 125,000 miles that has been rolled once? Norma understands.
“I’ve always called it ‘my hare-brained idea.’ “
Sunday, after Runza and her afternoon nap and dinner at 6 with her grandson at Amigo’s in Seward, Norma heads for home and nine days of rest.
Then a final push. She’ll swing west to York, Aurora, Clay Center, Hebron. Then south and east to Fairbury, Beatrice, Tecumseh. The One Stag Cafe in Falls City. The Avenue Grill in Nebraska City. And up north to Papillion, one last Runza.
Since June 15, she’s put 3,200 miles on the car she bought new nearly 20 years ago. She’s seen more of Nebraska than she ever had before or will after.
She knows she’s blessed to be making the journey.
She doesn’t know if she has changed a single mind.
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When an NADP supporter read the article about Norma, she sent us a donation with the attached note:
“I think this is an inspired, wonderful project! I cannot host but I can send some gas money. Anyone want to join me in this? I’ll send my check to NDAP, so if there’s any money left over – it will go to a good cause!” -Carol McShane
If you would like to join Carol in donating gas money for Norma’s trip, please send a check to the NADP with “Norma” in the memo line. Also, the rest of Norma’s schedule is up on our website. If you’d like to connect with her in one of her stops, please email us at NADP and we will get you connected with her.