Norma Todd, a co-founder and director of Red Bank’s Lunch Break, died Thursday at Riverview Medical Center.
She was 87 years old and still served as titular director of the charity.
Based on Drs. Parker Boulevard, Lunch Break is a place where anyone in need can get a hot or bagged meal, or clothing, no questions asked.
“It’s an incredibly sad day for Red Bank, and for the entire region,” said Mayor Pasquale Menna, who was involved in the Lunch Break effort in its early days. “My heart goes out to her family and to her extended family, the clients of Lunch Break. She was their mother, their friend, and their confidant.”
Rev. Terrence Rosheuvel of St. Thomas Episcopal Church recalled that, in 1983, he asked Todd if she would be interested in heading up a soup kitchen, then just a concept, to serve meals to people in need.
Recently returned to Red Bank after decades of travel, she had seen conflict and need around the globe. Her husband, James Todd, had been a foreign service officer in the State Department, and from 1945 to 1980, they and their two daughters had been stationed in hot spots from the Caribbean to Africa to Indonesia.
Rosheuvel recalled that James Todd had been trapped by fighting in Nigeria during the civil conflict known as the Biafran war in the late 1960s, and no amount of bureaucratic wrangling could get him out.
“So she asked for a Jeep and she did it herself she got him out,” Rosheuvel said. “This was one formidable woman. The idea of feeding a hot lunch to more than a hundred people a day didn’t bother her.”
Lunch Break operated out of the basement of St. Thomas until moving briefly to the Masonic Temple on what was then West Bergen Place. Its own facility was built and opened a few doors away in 1986.
Norma Todd was born Oct. 6, 1920 in Long Branch and raised in Red Bank. After a stint at North Carolina State, she finished a business degree in Washington, D.C., where she landed a clerical job at the Defense Department. There, she met her future husband, a DOD security guard who was soon recruited into the foreign service as part of an integration effort. Together, they embarked on a lifetime journey of humanitarian work, starting in Cairo.
James Todd died in 2003. The couple had two daughters: Cynthia, who was born in Cairo, and Coralie, born in Haifa, Israel.
In 2005, Coralie and Cynthia published “Watch out for the Elephants!“, a book inspired by their travels in the company of their parents.
“We lived in Cairo, Tel Aviv, Salzburg, Jakarta, Vienna, Frankfurt, the Ivory Coast, Congo,” Mrs. Todd told the Asbury Park Press that year. “We always challenged the girls to become part of the society wherever we went.”
Coralie tells redbankgreen that her mother, in the role of a foreign service officer’s wife, was barred from having a job of her own, and was expected by the State Department to do humanitarian work. It was a challenge Mrs. Todd took to eagerly, though not always as expected.
In Barbados, she said, her mother wanted to be involved with a Girl Scout troop, and was steered by locals to an established troop in an upscale neighborhood. But Todd insisted on aligning herself instead with a fledgling troop in a poorer section of town. Warned that the girls didn’t have much in the way of resources, she replied, “That’s precisely why I want to do it there,” Coralie recounted.
Her mother went on to set up or bolster Girl Scout troops on several continents, she said.
Todd also worked to fight a cholera outbreak in Cairo by educating local people on sanitary methods for disposing of the dead, and taught natives in one of the “four or five” African countries in which the family lived to make bricks.
Todd was also active in the Girl Scouts in Jakarta, set up a school for poor girls in Zambia, and worked at the Pakistan American Cultural Center in Pakistan, the Asbury Park Press reported two years ago.
“She had a full and wonderful life,” Coralie said.
“She was one of God’s angels on earth,” said Dan Petrocelli, a past president of Lunch Break. “She dedicated her whole life to her husband, her two daughters and to others.”
Since 2003, Lunch Break has held an annual Norma Todd Day to honor her and other volunteers and donors.
Brian Donohue, a Bank Street neighbor of Todd’s for the past five years, says he will miss her.
“To look out your window every morning, rain, sleet or snow, and see an 80-plus year old woman trudging off to work at a soup kitchen she started I can’t tell you how inspiring that is,” he said.