Noreen Stonor Drexel

Inducted: 2015
Born: 1922
Died: 2012
When Noreen Stonor Drexel accepted her Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Salve Regina in 1999, she made a confession: She had never been to school. And she meant never. As a girl at her family’s ancestral estate of Stonor Park in Oxfordshire, England, she had jumped on a horse and ridden away whenever she spotted the dust cloud of her tutor approaching “riding so much, in fact, that she came became a potential Olympic level equestrian.

Oddly, her lack of a formal education made her a strong advocate of public schools. And no one ever better demonstrated how tenuous the relationship is between formal education and great contributions to the wellbeing of mankind and society in general. From leadership positions in major health organizations, hospitals and the Red Cross to tackling emergences on the spot (she once stopped the potentially fatal bleeding of a cook in a New York City restaurant and twice resuscitated fellow passengers on airliners) her intense commitment never subsided. Nor did she ever seek the gratitude and recognition she so richly deserved.

Her background was the stuff of great English history. Stonor Park, which dates back to the eleventh century, was already more than 500 years old when it became a center for the religious controversy racking England during the Reformation. Catholic priests were hidden there, working to keep the faith alive and suffering ghastly torture and executions when they were discovered. Noreen’s ancestors were Recusants and included eight martyred saints.

When she and her mother moved from Stonor Park to Newport in 1938, she began her relentless progress toward authentic, if unofficial, sainthood. She became chairwoman of Bundles for Britain, headed the Newport War Bond Drive and volunteered at the Red Cross and the Newport Naval Hospital, where she worked in outpatient care, served as a nurse’s aide in the obstetrical and gynecological clinic and drove an ambulance. She said later that she liked ambulance driving, but not in parades because “you had to go too slow.” Her work at the hospital would go on through World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam.

Nor did this frenetic pace abate when the family spent time in Florida and New York. She ran the West Palm Beach Red Cross offices of volunteers, founded the Childbirth Education Association of the Palm Beaches and supported the Le Leche League, and launched a drug abuse program for young people.

In New York and Rhode Island, she volunteered in several hospitals, including New York Lying-In. Newport Hospital exists as something of a monument to her good works. Her family generously supported the construction of the Turner Building. Noreen also served as the chairwoman of the Aletta Morris McBean Charitable Trust.

A co-founder of the Newport Public Education Foundation and a strong supporter of the new Thompson Middle School in Newport, Noreen was to achieve in Newport what she had so assiduously avoided so many years before in Oxfordshire: her high school diploma. In 1999 the Newport Board of Education approved a GED diploma for Noreen Stonor Drexel. There could be no question that she met all reasonable qualifications.

The daughter of Lord and Lady Camoys of Stoner Park and, through her American mother, a descendent of Rhode Island’s founder Roger Williams and Brown University’s founder Nicholas Brown, Noreen “never had to do anything, but do she did,” as Dr. Orest Zaklynsky, one of her physician admirers at Newport Hospital, pointed out. And, notwithstanding her extraordinary organizational and administrative skills, it was her unhesitating willingness to help anyone in any situation, no matter how distasteful, for which she may be best remembered. At her induction into the Hall of Fame, Gladys Vanderbilt Szapary, her God daughter, best captured Noreen’s exquisite saintliness: “She performed the most elemental form of charity, aiding the ill, the troubled, the poor, one person at a time.”

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