Unsung Hero: Nancy Marshall of Cape Elizabeth, giving lasting gifts

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CAPE ELIZABETH — Shortly after Nancy Marshall was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer in 1997, her oncologist told her, “There will come a time when you will serve as an example to other people who are struggling with cancer.”

His words proved most prophetic.

But first a little background on Marshall, who will more likely be remembered, decades from now, as the world’s leading expert on Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” – popularly known as “The Night Before Christmas” – than as a lung cancer survivor and support group mainstay.

Marshall, whose career in library science culminated in the position of dean of university libraries at the College of William and Mary, had always been fascinated with the “Night Before Christmas.”

“That little poem with only 56 lines has captured the imagination of children of all ages since it was first published in 1823,” Marshall said. “I started out buying Little Golden Books, the 29-cent versions, and then I began collecting other copies from around the world with different illustrators. I got obsessed.”

Marshall’s collection grew, and grew, and grew. At one point, it numbered more than 1,000 copies, the largest such private collection in the world. It also inspired her to write a book, “The Night Before Christmas: A Descriptive Bibliography of Clement Clarke Moore’s Immortal Poem” (New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2002). She has even created a website: nightbeforechristmas.biz.

Eventually, she donated the collection to the College of William and Mary.

Now, back to cancer – or more accurately, Marshall’s lasting gifts to people who have lung cancer.

Marshall and her husband, Bill, moved to Maine in 2005 to be closer to one of their four children. Soon after the move, she learned that the Cancer Community Center in South Portland was starting a lung cancer support group. She’s been an active volunteer ever since, and participates in the monthly group.

“We try not to give advice,” she said, “because every person’s case is different. We just try to provide a place to socialize, which is important because cancer can be very isolating.”

In addition to these monthly meetings, Marshall serves as a “buddy” in the Buddy Program sponsored by the Cancer Community Center, an organization Nancy describes as “a fabulous place with wonderful programs.”

Most of the time, Marshall is a buddy to other people with lung cancer. “We’re there when they need us, often to help people get over a rough patch,” she said. She has been a buddy to 21 people over the years, and she is currently a buddy to four people.

Marshall’s gifts aren’t limited to her expertise on “The Night Before Christmas” or her work with cancer patients. She is a volunteer at the Museum at Portland Head Light, and she is deeply involved in local issues: she campaigned for a recent bond referendum to support building a new library in Cape Elizabeth, and was surprised and deeply disappointed when the referendum failed.

Marshall has accumulated much wisdom over a lifetime, which is now entering its ninth decade. She offers some sage advice to young people:

“Have an open heart and an open mind. Be aware of your environment. Be mindful of the moment you’re in. Appreciate your family and friends. Be good to your fellow human beings. Embrace diversity. And don’t get too enamored with technology, which is a tool, not the be-all and end-all.”

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Nancy Marshall

Unsung Heroes

One in a series of profiles by Brunswick writer David Treadwell about people who quietly contribute to the quality of life in greater Portland. Do you know an Unsung Hero? Tell us: [email protected].