Norma J. Engberg Thoemmes was born in Omaha, Nebraska on February 22, 1940–the only child of Russell C. Engberg and Florence Irene Kern. A quiet child with extraordinaryintelligence, Norma said she always preferred the company of animals to that of “run-of-the-mill” people. Whenever she and her parents visited the homes of friends, Norma sought out the cat or the dog. If there happened to be a reptile in the home she was even more thrilled.
Because of her intellectual prowess, Norma often found herself a bit bored in elementary school. By the time she reached high school, she was thoroughly unchallenged—having read her own way through the high school curriculum. She never completed high school but went straight to university-level studies. As a young woman, Norma did internships and worked at the Library of Congress, the National Archives, NASA and the Smithsonian. In every case, her intelligence and abilities confounded and impressed the librarians, archivists and scientists she worked for.
During her time at the Smithsonian, Norma’s love for sciencedeepened—paleontology, specifically. She committed to memory the history of the dinosaurs, their types, their rises and falls through time, and always kept track of their modern-daydescendants. This was a passion she never gave up.
When Norma announced to her parents that she wanted to pursue graduate studies in paleontology, they were more than just “aghast.” They vehemently protested and declared that itwas “not an appropriate field of study or vocation, for that matter, for a woman.”
Norma eventually ended up doing a PhD in Philology—the study of “dead languages.” Old English, Middle English, Latinand Greek were her passions and, in effect, her “literary and linguistic dinosaurs.” Dr. Engberg joined the faculty at the University of Nevada Las Vegas in 1970 and taught Old English, language and linguistics, principles of modern grammar and the Bible as Literature.
Eventually she met and married Edward Thoemmes, a retired Marine Corp Lt. Colonel who shared Norma’s love for English language studies and, more importantly, the “living fossils of the Nevada desert”—the tortoise. Norma was one of the founders of the Nevada Desert Tortoise Group, which is active and thriving today. She and Edward raised and rescued a variety of tortoises and turtles. Their pride and joy was a pair of Aldabra tortoisesnamed Gus and Gigi—who currently reside at the Oakland Children’s Zoo.
Norma taught at UNLV for 41 years. She was a pioneer and leader in distance education, broadcast and on-line learningwhen those forms of education were highly unpopular with the faculty of the day. When COVID-19 hit and universities across the world shifted to online and “Zoom” classes, she told a close friend, “Sure glad we did the hard work early on!” She directed masters and doctoral theses for numerous students, many who have gone on to a variety of professions in academia, education, politics, business, communications, the arts and other worthy causes.
Upon retiring from UNLV, she permanently moved to Ely, NV to live in the pinyon-juniper woodland and to be closer to a community she had loved and cherished for so many years. St. Bartholomew Episcopal Church, Four Square Gospel, White Pine Ministerial Association, Salvation Army bell ringing at Ridley’s, the food bank, the Northern Nevada Railroad, Margarita’s Mexican Restaurant, Twin-Wok, and Bath Lumber are the things, and the people associated with them, she lived for and that enriched her life.
Ever prayerful and unwavering in her core Christian beliefs, Norma enjoyed a personal relationship with God that guided her every step and brought her strength and comfort. In mid-April of this year, she moved to Wellsville, Utah, to the home Rob Behunin, her former student, life-long friend and confidant, toconfront the return of cancer. As she met with doctors and nurses, Norma consistently told them, “Our job is to fight the good fight. God will let us know when we are done.” Norma fought well, and on Saturday, May 16, 2020, God, in his tender mercy, called her home.
It is Norma’s request that if there are those who wish to honor her memory, that they make a contribution to any of the following in her name:
St. Bartholomew Episcopal Church—stbartholomewnevada.com
White Pine Ministerial Association—PO Box 150683 Ely, NV 89301
Nevada Northern Railroad—nnry.com
Nevada Desert Tortoise Group—tortoisegroup.org
Center for Biological Diversity—biologicaldiversity.org
A private, virtual memorial service will be held in her honor. Interment will be at St. Bartholomew’s Columbarium at a future date when social distancing and travel restrictions have been lifted.