Norma Fitzsimmons’ life motto was: “Never underestimate the power of a flower.”
Best-known as the founder of the Victoria Flower Count, a lighthearted campaign to showcase the City of Gardens as a tourist destination, Fitzsimmons died July 24 at age 97.
She remains an enduring part of Victoria’s history, whether for promoting Victoria as an international tourist destination, brightening up dinners for the homeless with donated blooms or starting her own floral business in the 1950s, when female entrepreneurs were rare.
“She just lived life to the absolute fullest. Her whole life was around flowers,” said daughter Diane Kuypers, who lives in Langley. “She had woven a tapestry of life with her camaraderie and love of people.”
Fitzsimmons was born Norma Christine Emery on Aug. 18, 1922, in Victoria, the middle child of Fred and Doris Emery. Her father worked for the Queen’s Printer, a Crown agency that produced documents for the B.C. government.
Fitzsimmons always said she knew she wanted to be a florist since she was a little girl. She’d often recount the story of being scolded for stealing flowers from her neighbour’s garden when she was five, said neighbour and friend Julia Foght.
Norma married Russell Fitzsimmons in April 1939 and the couple had two children, Tom, born in 1939 and Diane, born in 1947. Russell was a chief petty officer first class in the Royal Canadian Navy and spent six years stationed in the north Atlantic during the Second World War.
During that time, Norma fell ill with tuberculosis, which meant Tom and Diane were cared for by relatives while their mother was in a sanitarium.
Norma Fitzsimmons started her career as a florist working for Brown’s The Florist before launching Island Florist in 1957. She ran the shop in the 700-block of Yates Street until the 1980s. It was later sold and is now Poppies Floral Art.
Sheri Bourrie, one of Fitzsimmons’ five grandchildren, remembers appearing on television with her grandmother on broadcaster Ida Clarkson’s The Noon Show on CHEK 6 to demonstrate the perfect flower arrangement. Bourrie also remembers working in the flower shop as a teenager.
“I refer to her as the Energizer Bunny,” Bourrie said. “She just wouldn’t stop.”
Fitzsimmons insisted on voicing the radio ads for her flower business out of frustration that the men reading the ads kept butchering the names of the flowers, Foght said.
As a female business owner, Fitzsimmons was always helping to promote the City of Gardens, including launching a campaign with the Victoria AM Association to offer a rose or carnation to people disembarking a cruise ship at Ogden Point. She was active in the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce and served as a Saanich alderman for one term in the 1970s.
Fitzsimmons came up with the idea for the flower count in 1975, when the Victoria Visitors Bureau, where she was a director, was looking for creative ways to draw tourists to Victoria during the off-season.
She decided the flower count would be a cheeky way for Victoria to boast about being one of the few places in Canada where flowers are blooming in February. In the pre-internet days, people were asked to count the flowers in their gardens and call a special phone number to report the tally.
Fitzsimmons would donate and arrange flowers during Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter dinners for the homeless at Our Place, and also for the Greater Victoria Art Gallery, Victoria Symphony and the Victoria Conservatory of Music.
Her volunteer work won her a Valued Elder Recognition Award in 2017.
In 2010, Fitzsimmons stepped in to help organize a beach wedding for a couple she didn’t even know — Steve Fonyo and Lisa Greenwood.
The couple married at Fonyo Beach, named after Fonyo completed a cross-country marathon that he ended there in 1985, a feat that raised $13 million for cancer research.
Sponsors who stepped in to cover the costs of the wedding pulled out following news of Greenwood’s conviction for assault and theft, but Fitzsimmons, who had offered to donate flowers for the occasion, was undeterred. She also helped the couple celebrate their first wedding anniversary in the backyard of her Cadboro Bay home the next year.
Fitzsimmons was an avid golfer and a long-time member of the Uplands Golf Club.
She lived on her own after her husband died in 1984, but was never lonely, Bourrie said. She had a 20-year relationship with a Danish man named Borge Noesgaard. The two would go on cruises and travel the world until Noesgaard died in 2017, her granddaughter said.
“He loved her and she loved him,” Bourrie said.
Fitzsimmons hosted annual community potluck dinners in her flower-filled garden overlooking Gyro Park.
“She was the glue that held our little neighbourhood together,” said Foght, who lived across the street from Fitzsimmons for five years. Foght moved into her parents’ home, so she also knew Fitzsimmons during her childhood.
“She was absolutely a social butterfly,” Foght said.
Fitzsimmons loved her cat Emelia and was always putting seeds and breadcrumbs out for the birds and for two ducks, nicknamed Mike and Molly, said her neighbour.
“She’s absolutely a role model for active aging,” Fogt said. “She was a remarkable woman.”
Even after a few falls and health troubles that landed her in hospital in the last year, Fitzsimmons was insistent that she was going to live out her days in her own home, said her son, Tom.
On May 5, Fitzsimmons wrote on the Old Victoria Facebook page: “I feel very fortunate to have had a wonderful life for nearly 100 years.”
Diane said she could always cheer her mother up with a bouquet of flowers, and her mother was always sending her home with flowers from her garden. Diane said her own home is never without fresh flowers, which remind her of her mother.
“My mom just opened her heart up to people. She loved life in general and was very happy.”