Fred Norman: genius, mentor, mystery
Posted on July 22, 2013
When he was 12 years old. Fred Norman raised the bar for baseball scholars in his hometown of Johnstown, Penn. He was the only person in the city of 65,000 to predict with 100 percent accuracy the starting lineups of both leagues for the All-Star Game that was played in St. Louis that year. His prize was two free tickets to the game.
“It set the expectation for the rest of his life,” his brother, George Norman, said. “The entire community expected him to be a genius. People would ask him what a player’s average was, how many home runs he’d hit, how many times he’d struck out – and he would always know. He was a genius.”
Few who knew Fred Norman, who died July 2 at 78, would argue that point. And though his knowledge of sports history was encyclopedic, his genius was far from being confined to sports. He was one of those people who seem to know just about everything.
Who played left tackle for the Oakland Raiders in the 1968 Super Bowl? Ask Fred.
Who played Judith Fellowes in John Huston’s “Night of the Iguana?” Ask Fred.
Where did Mikhail Baryshnikov first study ballet? Fred would know.
In Boise, his home for many years, he was best known as the first director of the Morrison Center for the Performing Arts. He and Velma Morrison planned the center together and led the effort to get it built. With Morrison, he was the Morrison Center, handling the myriad details of operating it, personally directing some of its most memorable plays and charming one world-class entertainer after another into performing there. He kept their numbers in a book his brother described as being “a foot long and half a foot thick.” It contained contact information for celebrities from NBA stars to presidents.
When actor Hal Holbrook gave his Mark Twain performance at the Morrison Center and I wrote a review of it, Norman called to tell me he knew Holbrook well and was sending him a copy.
I was skeptical, but a few weeks later a letter arrived in a Morrison Center envelope. Inside was a scrawled note from Norman, and a long, personal letter from Holbrook, commenting on the review.
A few years later, actor Robert Redford visited Boise for the premiere of “Jeremiah Johnson.” Norman was involved behind the scenes, something that happened a lot, and the week after the premiere he called to say he was sending a copy of a biography I’d written of author Vardis Fisher (who wrote a book on which the movie was based) to his friend Bob.
“Bob?” I asked him. “Bob who?
I’d all but forgotten about it when the mail brought an envelope with a return address in Sundance, Utah. Inside was a note from Redford’s assistant, who said that his boss’s friend Fred Norman had sent him a copy of the book and “Bob” wanted to thank me for it.
“Fred and Robert Redford played baseball trivia together,” George Norman said. “He said Redford was very good at it. But Fred was better.”
When he wasn’t schmoozing with stars or coaching actors, chances are you’d find the Morrison Center’s director on the blue turf, coaching BSU quarterbacks. He’d played quarterback in high school in Pennsylvania and was recruited by the University of Oregon, turning down a scholarship there to attend Boise Junior College with a friend who failed the entrance exam at Oregon. Norman played quarterback for BJC, married a local girl and in 1959 landed a job teaching theater and coaching football at Arizona State University.
A decade later, he was back in Boise with two sons and a troubled marriage.
“He and our mom were divorced a long time ago, but they remained friends for life,” his son Lance said. “They always said they got along better after they were divorced.”
“They were two different people,” George Norman added. “She wanted him to be a farmer like her father had been, and he wanted to do performing arts.”
Performing arts received most of his time and talent for the rest of his life. He and Morrison became friends shortly after his return to Boise, and he quickly became a Boise institution.
“Boise is a richer place for him and all of his gifts,” Director Michael Hoffman said. “This is a place full of gifted people, and he gave us the gift of believing in ourselves.
“… He was my mentor. When I didn’t believe in myself, he would always believe in me. And he was tireless. He never slept. he just drank coffee and inspired people.”
Norman’s longtime friend and former BSU Alumni Director Dyke Nally added that he “wasn’t just the Morrison Center director. He was director of anything that the university, the students, faculty, public and friends needed him for. He was BSU’s community-relations specialist and the greatest friend raiser and fund raiser the university ever had.”
His work for the university and the community won enough awards and honors to fill a trunk. What went unreported was what he quietly did for individuals.
“The biggest quality about Fred was that he was always giving to others,” his brother said. “When a gentleman from Canada somehow connected with him after failing to get an article published, Fred sent it to Ronald Reagan. It’s in the Reagan Archives now. … Two ladies he’d helped with problems they were having cried for 15 minutes when I told them he had passed.”
In the early ’90s, Norman offered to help me through a mid-life career crisis by trying to get me a job at BSU. The reason nothing came of it was that he didn’t try very hard – for an excellent reason. He knew what I was yet to learn, that I’d never find another job that would be as rewarding as the one I already had.
In at least one way, he was a man of mystery – vanishing for extended periods and, when they’d all but given him up for dead, surprising friends with a call or a letter.
“I wouldn’t hear from him for months and then I’d suddenly get a letter,” Hoffman said. “He’d track me down in England or somewhere. How he did it I never knew. He was like God.”
Sometime in the 1990s or possibly a few years later – sources’ memories vary “- he disappeared for good.
“He was tired of working so hard in Boise,” George Norman said. “He wanted to go to a place where he could relax, someplace where nobody knew him and he could clear his mind.”
Rumors circulated that he was in Toronto, Canada; Apache Junction, Ariz., St. George, Utah … Only a few close friends knew that he’d ended up in Mesquite, Nev., a retirement community of 15,000 on the Arizona border.
Last winter, after a long time without a word, he called me from there. A column I’d written had piqued his interest, and he wanted to talk about it. Later, he sent a letter quoting, among others, poet Maya Angelou:
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
No one who knew him will forget how Fred made us feel: in a word – better. He was so alive, so intense, so infectiously enthusiastic that it was impossible to spend time with him without feeling better about life.
A memorial service is tentatively planned for Sept. 23 at the Morrison Center.
But there needs be something permanent. A sculpture on the center steps perhaps, near the one of Gib Hochstrasser. One gave us a lifetime of music, the other the gift of arts and entertainment. It’s the least we can do for all he did for us.
Tim Woodward’s column appears in The Statesman every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at www.woodwardcolumn.com.