Norma Lee Cannon Palms, the wife of former University of South Carolina President John M. Palms and a devoted contributor to educational, cultural, and church organizations throughout her life, died on Sunday, July 26 at the Medical University of South Carolina. Mrs. Palms had recently been battling a number of illnesses, and her husband of 62 years was beside her when she passed away peacefully.
Norma and John were blessed with a lifelong love affair, and it had an auspicious beginning: Introduced via a mutual friend, they went on a blind date at which John was so charmed he immediately proposed to her. Norma, ever the Charleston girl, made him wait until after he met her father, and then accepted. They were married a year later, two days after his graduation from The Citadel in 1958. Their South Carolina beginning as a couple was foretelling, for across their later decades, they would serve USC and organizations across Columbia and Charleston in numerous ways.
Born June 30, 1936, in Charleston to Norman L. Cannon and Gertrude Beshere Cannon, Norma attended Bishop England High School and Sacred Heart College in North Carolina. After she and John married, they first livid in Atlanta, GA where the U.S. Air Force sent John. Later he was station in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Colorado Springs, Colorado, and at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Mrs. Palms was active in community and volunteer groups, including the Air Force Officers’ Wives Club, and taught religion at the churches of which she was a member.
In 1966, they moved back to Atlanta, Georgia, when Dr. Palms accepted a position at Emory University. For the next 23 years, Mrs. Palms helped him to recruit faculty and fundraise. But that was only a part of the many roles she played, despite the demands of being mother to three growing children. In addition to other volunteer work, she was president of Emory Women’s Club, raised money for metropolitan charities, was active in the Catholic Center at Emory and the Parish of Christ the King Cathedral, and served as president of the Parent-Teacher Association at her children’s school.
When Dr. Palms was named president of Georgia State University in 1989, Mrs. Palms embraced the role of university First Lady, entertaining in the President’s Home, planning alumni and university functions, and assisting in fundraising. Meanwhile, she expanded her contributions to educational and cultural life in Atlanta, notably for the Atlanta Symphony, for which she served on the Executive Committee.
In 1991, following her husband’s appointment as the 26th president of USC, Mrs. Palms began a tenure of service to USC and community organizations in the state that would continue for the rest of her life. During their years at USC, she served on the boards of such organizations as McKissick Museum (co-chair), Providence Hospital, Harvest Hope Food Bank, the Cultural Council of Richland and Lexington Counties, Friends of Brookgreen Gardens, the USC Board of Visitors, the USC Women’s Club (honorary president), the Columbia Council for Internationals, and the National Advisory Council of USC’s Bicentennial Campaign. She also was honorary chair of Mepkin Abbey’s major fundraising campaign and active in the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges.
But as Carolina’s First Lady, Mrs. Palms was best known for her grace, attention to detail, sense of aesthetics and, most of all, genuine interest in everyone she met. During those 11 years, she and Dr. Palms welcomed more than one million guests to their home. Mrs. Palms especially enjoyed hosting Carolina students and student organizations, and proudly helped initiate the senior ring ceremony. In 2001, in recognition of her work with students, she was inducted into Omicron Delta Kappa.
Mrs. Palms also enjoyed a particular passion for improving the President’s House and gardens. In 2002, the Columbia Garden Club honored her service by dedicating it with a beautiful plaque on the Horseshoe as “The Norma Cannon Palms Rose Garden.”
In 2002, USC’s Board of Trustees awarded Mrs. Palms the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in recognition of her commitment to the cause of higher education and the University community, in particular “for her enthusiastic and wholehearted involvement in civic organizations and activities that add immeasurably to the quality of life of all people.” Her official portrait was recently hung alongside Dr. Palms’ in USC’s Thomas Cooper Library.
After their tenure at USC, Dr. and Mrs. Palms moved to Isle of Palms, South Carolina. In the years since, she has joined him in helping USC in any way they could and has been active in community, cultural, and church organizations across Charleston and beyond, including Mepkin Abbey; the Charleston Gaillard Center; and Spoleto Festival USA. In 2006, Mrs. Palms received a special award for her work on the Capital Campaign for the Renovation of the Memminger Auditorium and the Dock Street Theatre. In 2007, the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI bestowed upon Mrs. Palms the Papal Honor: Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross, in recognition of her service in giving strong encouragement to the Catholic presence on the campus of the University of South Carolina. She loved to read, dance, cook, attend the symphony, host guests, indulge their grandchildren at every chance possible, and pray each day hand in hand with John.
Mrs. Palms is survived by her husband John, her children John Michael Palms, Jr. (Anna) Dallas, TX, Danielle Palms McClure (Mark) Columbia, SC, and Lee Cannon Palms (Nelle) Greenville, SC; her grandchildren Lee Madison Palms, Caroline Kirkpatrick Palms, John Michael Palms III, Thomas Daniel McClure, Patrick John McClure, Maria Adele McClure, Lee Cannon Palms, Jr., Moseley Reed Palms, and Harriette Nelle Palms. She is predeceased by her brother Joseph B. Cannon and sister Gertrude Agnes Cannon Cooper.
Due to Covid-19, a private funeral to be attended by the immediate family will be held on Monday, August 3, at The Cathedral of John the Baptist in Charleston, South Carolina. The service will be live streamed at 11:00 AM, Monday, August 3, 2020, at http://tinyurl.com/sjblive
Although Mrs. Palms loved flowers, she had an even greater passion for supporting others. In that regard, in lieu of flowers,memorial contributions may be made to the following: The University of South Carolina, Metkin Abbey, The Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston or The Spoleto Festival, USA.. Arrangements by JAMES A. MCALISTER, Inc. (843) 766-1365 Visit our guestbook at www.legacy.com/obituaries/