Hodges University

The Life and Legacy of Lavern Norris GaynorThe Life and Legacy of Lavern Norris Gaynor

Lavern Norris Gaynor has furthered a family legacy that stands out among the finest of philanthropic traditions and spans a measure of more than 90 years of support for initiatives involving education, the arts, health & wellness, and causes especially pertinent to the needs of neglected children.

A daughter of the late Dellora Angell and Lester Norris, Lavern was raised in St. Charles, Illinois, where her parents were recognized as the philanthropists behind such foundations as Delnor Hospital, Delnor Medical Park, the Norris sports complex, and a cultural center which exists on 70 acres of land donated to the Saint Charles High School. Her parent's legacy of public service traces beyond 1917, but it was at this time that Dellora, all of 15 years old, inherited a portion of John Gates’ famed fortune; an inheritance amounting to millions amassed through the manufacturing of barbed wire and the founding of a company known as The Texas Oil Company (recognized today as Texaco).

Six years later, in 1923, Dellora married Lester Norris, a local cartoonist and sweetheart from her childhood. The couple would go on to forge a formidable record of humanitarianism which includes Lester Norris’s earning of a Presidential Commendation for his establishment of the national Victory Garden Program of World War II notoriety. Dellora and Lester became fixtures in Naples after their first visit in 1945. During the years that followed, they were instrumental to the founding of such institutions as Naples Community Hospital, the Big Cypress Nature Center, Lowdermilk and Delnor-Wiggins State Park, The Conservancy and many other local landmarks. Their initiative and unrelenting willingness to help was consistent through some of the most critical moments of Naples’ history, such as 1960, when Hurricane Donna destroyed Naples iconic City Pier. Dellora and Lester Norris would emerge as the force behind the pier's rebuilding.

As for Lavern, her familiarity with Naples came after her parents’ arrival. In the years prior, she had married George Gaynor, one of Texaco's most dynamic, young executives. The son of Joseph and Agnes Gaynor, George came from humble beginnings in New York, but dedicated himself to earning an education and working hard at his career. Texaco ultimately entrusted him with the expansion of their overseas markets and he, with Lavern, spent a number of years living in New York, Belgium and Italy where he retired in 1971. They raised two children along the way; a daughter DeeDee and a son George. After moving to Naples in 1976, George and Lavern became recognized among the most charity-minded couples of the community. With his dry sense of humor and blue-eyed charm, George attracted many friends at favorite haunts such as The Hole-in-Wall Golf Club, the Port Royal Club and The Naples Yacht Club. Lavern, continuing a tradition that mirrored her parents’ service, donated time, energy and critical financial help to causes such as the YMCA, The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, The Naples Philharmonic, The Naples Historical Society, The Naples Alliance for Children, and Youth Haven, an organization benefiting abused and neglected children to which Lavern remains especially dedicated. Beyond her providing of financial support, Lavern has devoted more than 7 years of service to Youth Haven’s Board of Directors, garnering a lifetime appointment and designation as the first recipient of their Frances Pew Hayes Child Advocate of the Year Award. Additional honors include Naples Daily News Citizen of the Year and distinction as The YMCAâ00€™s Preeminent Pioneer.

Then, in 1997, in a gesture recognizing the depth of the humanitarian impact Lavern Gaynor had made in Naples, International College distinguished her with their inaugural Humanitarian of the Year Award. This occasion marked the beginning of Lavern's relationship with International College. At the time, International College operated from a vacant strip mall located on the East Tamiami Trail. Lavern learned how the college's leadership was implementing a curriculum that uniquely served adults striving to earn a college degree while balancing the demands of work and family. As International College expanded programs, student enrollments, staff and facility size, it did so with the ever nurturing presence, encouragement, and extraordinary assistance rendered by loyal supporters like George and Lavern Gaynor. George Gaynor passed away, at the age of 87, on July 9, 2003. He was survived by a wife of 57 years, his two children and five grandchildren, countless friends from around the world, and a life's chronicle of contributions made to the community of Naples.
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