2015 Distinguished Person of the Year: Barbara Cornwell Norvell

Barbara Cornwell Norvell has been named the Rotary Club of Morganton's 2015 Distinguished Person of the Year.  She is the 1st woman to be given this honor.

The club changed the name of the award this year from “Man of the Year” to acknowledge the many contributions area women have made to the community, as previously was reported in the News Herald.

Norvell is a Morganton native who graduated from Morganton High School. She went on to graduate from Furman University with a degree in sociology, and moved to Greenville, South Carolina with her husband, Jerry, for six years, where she volunteered at juvenile court.

She said they returned to Morganton because they felt it was the best place to raise a family. She immediately dove into several worthy causes to benefit the community.

Norvell said a committee within the Morganton Service League founded the Historic Burke Foundation, because they were interested in restoring the old Burke County courthouse. Norvell went on to become president of HBF, and worked with the city of Morganton and Burke County to raise funds to get the courthouse restored.

“It’s important because it’s the heart of downtown now,” Norvell said. “The cool thing is it started a revitalization of our entire downtown area.”

Norvell also was involved in the restoration of the Quaker Meadows house. She considers local historic preservation an important work.

“It tells us where we came from, if we understand our history and those roots,” Norvell said.

Norvell was eventually asked to serve on the North Carolina Board of Historic Preservation.

“It was a great learning experience for me,” Norvell said of her time on the state board. “It exposed me to other towns that were doing similar projects to ours.”

Norvell got further involved in the downtown by asking the city to apply for “Main Street” designation, which Norvell described as “a great tool to help keep the downtown vital.”

Barbara Cornwell Norvell, 2015 Distinguished Person of the Year

Barbara Cornwell Norvell, 2015 Distinguished Person of the Year

The “Main Street” program is a national initiative that the North Carolina Department of Commerce defines on its website as “a comprehensive revitalization process designed to improve all aspects of a downtown.” Each program focuses on things like nurturing partnerships, promoting special events, improving the city’s design and attracting new business, especially to repurpose vacant buildings.

“They (The Main Street Center) chose us because we had an active preservation group and a good city government,” Norvell said.

“Barbara was one of the visionaries and took the initiative to make things happen,” Jabonski said. “She has a love of all things historic and recognized the importance of revitalizing the downtown. We would not have the downtown we have today if it were not for Barbara and all the others who helped us get the Main Street designation. She is a great supporter of this office, and I don’t think they could have picked a better person (to be the 2015 Distinguished Person of the Year).”

Norvell has a heart for children, and has spent years working as a guardian ad litem, which is a volunteer advocate for foster children in the Burke County court system. She said she works with foster parents, biological parents and social service case workers to “figure out what’s best for the child” in each situation.

She and some of her family members founded the Huffman-Cornwell Foundation in 1960. This organization gives grants and “provides support to those who are working to improve the quality of life in Burke County primarily through support of education, arts and cultural activities, faith-based activities, and those supporting health and human services,” according to their website, www.huffmancornwell.org.

Barbara Cornwell Norvell, 2015 Distinguished Person of the Year, with fellow Rotarian

Norvell also has served on the boards of Grace Hospital and Grace Ridge, a Rotary Club press release said.

Norvell has attended First Presbyterian Church of Morganton with her husband for about 50 years. She said they have done various types of volunteer work, such as teaching Sunday School, leading youth and volunteering at Burke United Christian Ministries’ soup kitchen, among other activities.

First Presbyterian pastor Michael Bailey expressed appreciation for Norvell’s service to the church.

“Barbara has been a long-time, dedicated member at First Presbyterian Church,” Bailey said. “Although especially active in Presbyterian Women, Barbara has faithfully done just about every job there is to do in the church. First Presbyterian Church has most definitely benefitted from the love, support, generosity, dedication and prayers of Barbara Norvell. And I believe she would quickly tell you she felt she had benefitted in the same way.”

Norvell and her husband, who was named “Man of the Year” by the Rotary Club of Morganton in 2011, have four children – two sons and two daughters. All live in North Carolina except for one son that lives in Pennsylvania. They also have seven grandchildren.

She said she is honored to be the first woman to be named Rotary’s 2015 Distinguished Person of the Year.

“I’m honored by being recognized for doing what people normally do in our community,” Norvell said. “I’m proud that this is a town of people that really care about each other.”

Ron George, president of the Rotary Club of Morganton, praised Norvell for her contributions to the area.

“Barbara exemplifies the type of person Rotary wants to recognize with this award,” George said. “She is a person who has volunteered her time, talents and energy throughout her life to make the Morganton (and) Burke County community a better place to live for all its citizens.”

Past Rotary President Waits Gordon agreed.

“No work is too hard for her or beneath her,” Gordon said. “She is a very hands-on person and has done so much for our entire community.”

Watch the video of the banquet:

Banquet for Rotary Club of Morganton Distinguished Person of the Year ceremony