Harris Stilson’s photographs encompassed historic events: Richmond’s World War I soldiers off to war, Yorktown’s 150th celebration where Harry’s movies captured President Hoover and his Secret Service, and the Church Hill tunnel prior to its tragic collapse. He was also the poor man’s photographer, selling family portraits for 10 and 15 cents along his West Clay Line streetcar route but many of his photographs were of his family. He recorded births, celebrations, and reunions. Today, January 19th, was the birthday of his granddaughter, Norma Kathleen Lynch, and it’s appropriate to share her life as seen through the lens of her grandpa, Harry Stilson.

My grandparents, Lee & Anita Lynch, lived next door to Harry and Mary Stilson on Grayland Avenue, now Carytown. Harry took this photograph of my father, Howard Lynch, with his new baby sister. Harry “fancied up” the image by using his Willo Variable Vignetter, basically a plastic template.


The Stilson collection contained a generous number of bicycle photos, some of which are included in Richmond In Sight note cards (www.richmondinsight.com) but Norma is riding her first tricycle here.

NKL on trike

Her second birthday on January 19, 1926 was well-documented. In one photo, she admires her birthday cake, and in the other, she and Howard play behind 3021 and 3019 Grayland Avenue.

NKL 2 yr bday  NKL HDL her bday

Working with family documents and photographs has been enlightening. I’ve discovered how radical some of my relatives were. Harry recommended “common schools and churches” (integration, although that term may not have used then) for blacks and whites in a 1907 speech. His wife, Mary, was teacher and carpenter, building a house in Michigan for her invalid mother so when their granddaughter, Norma, wasn’t a “girly girl,” it wasn’t entirely unexpected. Norma Kathleen Lynch continued the family tradition of not being traditional. She grew up, worked at the Pentagon during WWII designing munitions, and later became the second female bridge engineer in the Virginia Highway Department (VDOT now) so I know the picture below (left) in her Easter bonnet would have embarrassed her. The second photo is more her style: Norma, Howard, and twin girls perched on Harry’s car parked on Marshall Street in Jackson Ward.

nkl hdl hats sepia     015 HDL NKL and twins bk sepia

Byrd Park was within walking distance of home so hundreds of Stilson images were shot there. Below, Howard, Ralph Carr, and Norma (un-girly in her short hair) enjoy hot dogs at Shields Lake. The next photo shows her and Howard riding on Grayland Avenue. He’s wearing a “Lindy hat”, imitating Charles’ Lindberg’s aviator’s cap. Norma’s seat in front could be indicative of her personality. It took determination to design shells, hand-granades, and to become a ground-breaking female bridge engineer. In that era, women were expected to break dishes, not earth.

HDL NKL RC HDL NKL two on bike

Harry Stilson died in 1934 so he didn’t witness his granddaughter’s career but I believe he would have been proud of her. Norma Kathleen Lynch also died young but she did live to see her niece and namesake (me) continuing the family legacy of pushing boundaries and denying stereotypes. She loved telling people that I was a telephone installer climbing poles in downtown Richmond. Years later, she was thrilled that I named my second daughter Mary Kathleen. Her only regret was that her new namesake was born January 18th instead of 19th. She documented her dismay for posterity by having a silver cup engraved “Just 6 more hours” in case I ever forgot that she really, really wanted that baby born on her birthday.

Another photographer, not Harry Stilson, took the picture below for a Richmond Times Dispatch article about the unusual career of Norma Kathleen Lynch and her dreams.

Kit Lynch dream pic

On the anniversary of her birthday, January 19th, I think it’s appropriate to share an image that probably would have tickled her grandfather. He would have immediately started figuring out how to create the “bridge dream” in the photograph. Harry Stilson, who created a family photo that included his granddaughter, Norma, even though she was absent that day, would have certainly figured a way to add a dream to Norma Kathleen’s newspaper photograph.

019 photoshop                           020 NKLphotoshop