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Lorna Colbert Raised Her Son Stephen Right

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The photo above shows Stephen Colbert's parents, Jim and Lorna, at a social event in the late 1960s at the Medical University of South Carolina, where Jim was a respected physician and administrator.

Lorna Tuck Colbert raised her son Stephen - and her ten other children - right.

When I was researching my biography on Stephen Colbert - And Nothing But The Truthiness - I was continually struck by the close relationship he shared with his parents and indeed, with all of his siblings. As the youngest of 11 children, from the day he was brought home from the hospital, his brothers and sisters regarded Stephen in the same way they would a new puppy. "My three sisters had a live baby doll," he said. "Me."

"He had lots of attention paid to him and was carried around," said his mother, Lorna, who died on June 12th at the age of 92. "They used to do little tricks with him."

"I was very loved," he said. "My sisters like to say that they are surprised that I learned to walk and that my legs didn't become vestigial because I was carried around by them so much."

Here are some stories about the first woman in Stephen Colbert's life.

  • In the Colbert household, Lorna served dinner from the youngest to the oldest, so Stephen was always the first to eat. "That way, I'd also be ready for seconds first," he said. "Being the youngest, I always got a lot of attention. It became an addiction. I need attention."
  • "I grew up in a humorocracy where the funniest person in the room is king," said Stephen. "There was a constant competition to have the better story and be the funniest person in the room, and I wasn't a particularly funny kid." One time, Stephen eavesdropped on his mother while she was telling his siblings that they had to listen to his stories, even though they complained that he was boring. "And to this day I sort of feel like if I'm doing well with an audience, then Mom's gotten to them and said, 'You listen to him.'"
  • Though her family lived in Larchmont, New York, Lorna spent most of the year at convent school in Providence, Rhode Island. Whenever she came home for vacations or weekends, she kept her eye on James William Colbert, Jr., one of the altar boys at St. Augustine's Church. She liked the fact that he was an optimist, compared to other boys with negative attitudes who were typically complaining about the continuing economic misery afoot in the world. She was impressed that Jim always had something good to say.
  • In 1951, the Colberts - with four kids and another on the way - were moving into an apartment in New Haven, Connecticut. The previous tenants had left behind a feral cat that had just given birth to a litter of dead kittens in a box in a bedroom in the new apartment, and the mother cat would hiss and snarl and try to attack anyone who tried to come in the room. With Jim working at the hospital, Lorna called the city animal control department to remove the cat from the premises, but the guy who showed up thought the cat was too wild to handle. Lorna would have none of it. She was hugely pregnant with Margaret, a/k/a/ Margo, and tried to play on his sympathies, but the animal control official refused to deal with the cat. Lorna grabbed a bag from him and marched into the bedroom. A few moments later, she came out of the room with the cat in the bag and handed it over.
  • The family attended Mass every week, no matter where they were, although by the time Peter - the tenth Colbert - was born in 1959, they had long ceased to fit into one car. "We had to go to church in two cars, there were so many of us," said Margo Colbert Keegan. One time, she remembered, they were heading out of the driveway of the church and Lorna saw a parishioner hold up a little boy who was crying. "I remember Mom say, 'Oh, that poor little boy...oh my gosh, that's Paul!'" After that, Dr. Colbert counted noses whenever the family traveled together, but that only worked for a short time. "When we had eight kids he started to count to eight," remembered Edward. They may have gotten to eight, but they weren't necessarily all Colberts. One time, somebody was left behind because one of the kids who had responded was a friend, and not a Colbert. "After that, we had to answer by name," said Margo.
  • In 1960, Dr. Colbert signed on to be chair of the St. Louis Chapter of "Doctors for Kennedy," to support John F. Kennedy, Jr., the first Catholic to have a good chance at becoming President of the United States. The photograph of the two of them shaking hands - with Jim absolutely beaming - was displayed prominently in his office at the medical school, and visitors often commented on it. Though they were lifelong Republicans, he and Lorna voted for Kennedy. Later on, the photograph was hung in the Colbert home; Stephen later commented, "In our house, the Kennedy picture was like a religious icon."
  • As they'd done with all of their kids, Jim and Lorna encouraged Stephen to find something they loved to do, and he never felt pressured. "They hoped that I would find a direction," he said. "They were very supportive of anything I eventually decided to try to do as long as it could pay the rent. They were always saying, 'Go be a whaler. Be an ice climber. You don't want to be a lawyer, go raft the Amazon.' We were not people of means, but the rule in our house was: Never refuse a legitimate adventure."
  • After Dr. Colbert and sons Paul and Peter were killed in a plane crash on September 11, 1974 in Charlotte, North Carolina, Stephen, who'd spent the first years of his life in a household overflowing with brothers and sisters, lived alone with his mother. "The shades were down, and she wore a lot of black," he remembered. "It was very quiet." But he wasn't so withdrawn that he pulled away from his mother. On the contrary, he worked overtime to help her and turned to the age-old Colbert talent for making each other laugh. "I did my best to cheer my mom up," he said. While she appreciated her youngest son's efforts, Lorna found great solace in continuing to go to Mass, usually on a daily basis. Stephen often accompanied her. "My mother found great strength - I don't know about peace - by going to Mass," he said. "Because it was just the two of us at home, I was often there with her. And that made a powerful impression on me. It was a constant search for healing. My mother gave that gift to all of us. I am so blessed to have been the child at home with her."

Photo courtesy of the Waring Historical Library, MUSC, Charleston, S.C.