Madeline Ormsbee was born on October 9, 1917 in Neptune, New Jersey. She was the second child born to her parents: her brother Ray had been born ten years earlier. Whenever asked what her family’s ancestry was, Madeline would always answer simply, “American.”
Madeline’s father died when she was just thirteen years old. The nation was moving into the great depression, and in order to pay the bills, Madeline’s mother took in borders. To help support the family, Madeline got a job at the age of fifteen as a phone operator at the Asbury Park phone company, while at the same time continuing her studies at Neptune High School.
There was a touch of glamour to the job: Frank Sinatra would sometimes place phone calls to his friends on the Jersey shore. As the years passed, Madeline competence moved her up to a supervisor’s position. She was on duty in her supervisor’s position on Halloween Night in 1938 when Orson Well’s “War of the Worlds” was broadcast, the phone lines on fire with people terrorized and wanting to know what was up with the Martians that were making their way across southern New Jersey.
It was during High School that Madeline was introduced by a mutual friend to young man named Kenny Ormsbee. Kenny had been raised in nearby Avalon, dropping out of high school when his father died to work the family restaurant. Madeline was dating a Neptune High School football player at the time, but he quickly became history as Madeline and Kenny connected on a level that would last a life time.
In July of 1936, shortly after Madeline graduated from high school with a business degree, the young couple were married in simple ceremony in a church parsonage. There was no money for a honeymoon, and it was, as Madeline recalled, “so ungodly hot” the day of their wedding that Madeline’s corsage didn’t make it through the day. But the marriage itself did last, as Madeline and Kenny lived together in loving devotion to one another for the next 55 years before Kenny’s departure from this world.
Following their simple wedding, Madeline and Kenny set about creating a life together. They had fun together roller skating and dancing. Together they endured the black outs that were common along the shore during the frightening times of World War II. When the cruise ship “Mirro Castle” burned and sank off the Jersey coast, the apparent victim of an enemy attack, Madeline and Kenny went to Asbury Park together to witness up close the horror of the ship’s wreckage drifting offshore
Madeline’s life centered around the West Grove Methodist Church in Neptune where her parents had raised her. She was very active in the Ladies’ Society, where she served as president, and oversaw the renovation of the big church parsonage and the reception that was held to celebrate the new furbishing.
When the family restaurant folded, Kenny found work as a linesman with Jersey Central Power and Light, the company with which he would work until his retirement. In his spare time, Kenny was active in the local volunteer fire department.
In 1946, after ten years of marriage, Madeline rejoiced in the birth of a baby boy whom the couple named “Barry.” Five years later a baby girl was born, who was given the name “Denise.”
They were a happy family together. Every summer Madeline and Kenny made a point of taking the children on vacation together. They would load up the car to travel up and down the East Coast: to Niagara Falls, through New England, Pennsylvania, down to Williamsburg and Virginia. It was a special time for the family to be together and explore the sights and sounds of America.
A common thread in Madeline’s life was her devotion to family. When her mother suffered a stroke in 1957 Madeline and Kenny took her into their home, where Madeline devoted herself to providing constant care to her mother until her death the following year in 1958. For a time Madeline’s brother Ray also lived with the family.
In 1959 Kenny received word on high that his job was being transferred to the Morristown office of Jersey Central Power and Light. A house was built at 6 Highland Court, and on December 18th the family made the move out to the boonies of Morris County. Public transportation the sort that Madeline had enjoyed in Neptune was non-existent. When brother Ray arrived for Christmas, walking the planks that traversed the mud to the front steps, he hollered on about what a “God forsaken” place was his sister had moved to.
In her own words, Madeline “cried for months” over the move. Kenny’s one attempt at teaching Madeline how to drive a car had not gone well, and so Madeline was more or less stuck at home, cut off from the network of family and friends in Neptune in which she had found support and meaning for her life.
For about a year or so, Madeline’s heart remained in Neptune, and she would insist that Kenny drive the family back every other week or so to visit Kenny’s mom and the Ladies’ Society meetings she felt such a part of.
But gradually, over time, the old life died, and a new life was born. Resurrection happened. The setting for rebirth was the Parsippany Methodist Church, where the family began to put down deep roots. Friendships were born and nurtured that would last a life time. The Kelshaws, the Heitschels, the Seamans, the Bradleys and others became more than friends, they became truly family. And this time around it wasn’t only Madeline who was devoted to church life: Kenny accepted an invitation to chair the new building committee as the congregation was forced to abandon the beloved “little church on the hill”, and begin the process that would lead to the construction of a new church home here at South Beverwyck Road. In time, the trips to Neptune became more and more infrequent. The family was now truly at home.
A tradition soon began with Jack and Lois Kelshaw, that later included Myra and Hank Heitschel, of spending holidays together: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter. More often than not Madeline would host the big holiday dinner, because she loved to entertain — loved having people over to her home that she loved.
In the summertime the pool out back of the house became the setting for barbecues of the PUMAS (the Parsippany United Methodist Adults) and for Barry and Denise’s youth groups.
Madeline loved to decorate: any holiday gave her an excuse to transform the decor: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easters, the 4th of July.
Madeline developed a passion for crafts. She took up ceramics and eventually got her own kilm. Madeline’s nativity scene became the center piece of our church’s Christmas decorating, and remains so today. She gave up ceramics only when, she said, there was no room left in her attic for any more of the pieces she made.
She made candles, and decorated the woodwork that Kenny made in his carpentry shop. They were both a team: both striving for perfection in the details of their work. Their handiwork soon became the mainstay of church bazares.
Madeline once made matching costumes for Kenny and herself for a Community Club Awards Party: They were dressed as the Campbell Soup kids, winning first prize for best costumes.
When Barry got a bunny for a pet, Madeline took on bunnies as a theme, becoming known as the “bunny lady”, making bunnies in her crafts, and buying bunnies in the shops she would visit. Jack Kelshaw gave her the nick name “Beatrice”, after Beatrix Potter, and the Peter Cottontail stories.
She loved to take care of plants and tend her garden flowers.
Though she never did learn to drive. Lois gave another try at teaching Madeline, but the lesson ended in giggles rather than driving success. Madeline, however, always did love to go for drives in the car. After church on Sundays, Madeline, Kenny, Barry and Denise, and Jack and Lois would pile into the car to drive through the countryside. Later when Denise was older, the mother and daughter would make a regular Thursday tradition of driving out to various malls in Pennsylvania. Madeline had an incredible sense of direction: she knew exactly how to find the most out of the way shopping haunts, where she would search for the charming knick knacks with which she decorated her home.
When Denise became a teenager, Madeline went back to work for the first time since the birth of her children. She took a job at Epstein’s Department Store in Morristown, working in the Home Goods Department. Given her pleasure in decorating, it was the perfect job for Madeline. She worked there for thirteen years, retiring in 1978.
The church continued to be the center of Madeline’s life. It is not possible to put in to words all the Madeline and Kenny have meant to this congregation. Even in her latter years she had her impact upon the new people who came to be a part of her church family. Andy Klekanos and Darren Yacenko couldn’t be here this morning, but unasked they sent me the following words of rememberance:
“We did not know Mrs. Ormsbee very long. She was one of those warm, kind and feisty UMC
Parsippany women who greeted us when we joined this congregation and made us welcome
every Sunday. Our fondest memory of Mrs. Ormsbee is from that Christmas when she
displayed several of her Nativity scenes during coffee. You could see the pride in her eyes as
she showed us each of them – where they were from and how long she had them. We were so
happy to share that time with her as we shared her love of Christmas. We will miss her smiling
Face and warm greetings.”
Andy Klekanos and Darren Yacenko
When their grandchildren came along — first Melissa, then Chris, and finally Kassie — Madeline and Kenny gave themselves over to the role of devoted, loving grandparents. Chris spent the first eighteen months of his life being cared for each day by his grandparents while Denise and Ken worked.
As it was for her children, so it was now for her grandchildren: Whenever there was an event — dance recitals, school plays, graduations, whatever — the grandparents were guaranteed to be there. Madeline was proud of her kids’ accomplishments, and always supportive of them. And fiercely loyal. The same was true for her friendships: if Madeline was your friend, you could count on her. She was there for you.
Madeline’s greatest joy was to be together with Kenny and all the family: Barry, Jo, and Melissa, Denise, Ken, Chris and Kassie, and the adopted family as well: Lois and Jack, Hank and Myra.
One particularly happy memory was the surprise 50th wedding anniversary party that the family threw for Madeline and Kenny at the Afton.
Two strong personalities had been there together for one another for all these years, a dependable loving presence for their family to count on, for their friends, for their church.
Five years later, when Kenny died in 1991, Madeline was devastated. Her life partner of 55 years of marriage was no longer here to walk beside.
If one of them had to go first, it was better, though, that it be Kenny. Of two strong personalities, Madeline was probably, in truth, the stronger, and the more flexible, of the two. Kenny would have been absolutely lost in this world without his wife at his side.
Madeline’s strong, independent spirit kept her going after Kenny’s death. She lived alone in the house by herself for four years before Denise, Ken, Chris and Kassie moved in with her in 1995 after she broke her hip. Arthritis had left Madeline unable to do the crafts that she had loved, and her hearing was fading.
Friendship was one of the great blessings of Madeline’s life: she had friends because she knew how to be a friend. She was generous and loyal.
Myra and Hank were wonderfully devoted to Madeline throughout the years following Kenny’s death. Every Tuesday and Thursday they would pick Madeline up to take her out to breakfast, first to I Hop, and later at the Empire Diner, where they became beloved “regulars” to the waitresses there. Every Thursday the Heitschels took Madeline out to do her weekly shopping. Knowing Madeline’s love for seeing the countryside, Hand and Myra would take Madeline with them on their cross country trips.
Her memory begin to fail, and in August of 2000 she suffered a debilitating stroke, leading her to move into Morris View Nursing Home, the setting where she would live the last four years of her life. There her family would visit regularly, and her church friends as well: Lois and Doris, Grace Schlosshauer and Ruth Levinson, Lynn and Gace Agre, Hwa Chun and Katherine Schreiner. She kept her rye sense of humor to the end: the cute little smirk, the roll of her piercing blue eyes.
She had it with her last month when the family gathered at Madeline’s bedside to celebrate her 87th birthday. Kassie sensed her grandfather’s presence in the room, standing there with his little contented smile. Three weeks later, on the night in which Madeline died, a screw was found sitting on the night table, a sign from Kenny the woodworker. He had come to escort his wife as she left this world to enter the next, that new world where Jesus waited to welcome her home. Where there are no more crying, no more pain, no more death.
Thank you, God for this simple woman of integrity, of loyalty, of humor, and of persistent concern and caring for those she loved.
As I reflect on the story of Madeline’s life, one of the themes that strikes me is that of death and resurrection. Moving from death to life after her father died, then later from death to life as the family moved out to Morristown. Moving from death to life after Kenny died, after her stroke, and finally now her physical death.
God does not abandon us in the darkness.