RAPID CITY — A simple vital statistics entry for John Gray “Jack” Norris would record that he was born April 5, 1921, son of Earl and Carol (Gray) Norris, was married April 27, 1940, to Marian Denton, and died April 3, 2013. It would mention that Jack and Marian had two daughters, Tina (Larry) Fields and Dr. Rebecca M. Norris.
It would also note his World War II military service dates from Dec. 7, 1943, to March 2, 1946. It would probably list the decorations he earned during that service: Silver Star Medal, Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, American Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal & Bronze Star Attachment, Combat Infantryman Badge 1st Award and Honorable Service Lapel Button WWII.
It might possibly mention that his university career, achieved in bits and pieces, over a span of nine years, began at the University of Chicago, continued briefly at the University of Maryland and was completed after his WWII service, with graduation in 1948 from Columbia University in New York.
Such an entry, while correct and respectful of the man, would fail to capture the true importance of the life of Jack Norris. Jack was a Michigander from before birth, a peripatetic globe trotter and a staunch environmentalist. Growing up he lived on Long Island, N.Y., and in Evanston, Ill., as his family moved. He spent time on Torch Lake at the cottage his father and grandfather built at the south end of the lake. Unable to have furry pets because of his younger brother’s asthma, Jack became interested in herpetology and developed considerable expertise in the subject.
His herpetology knowledge came in handy when his parents wanted to purchase what became the family farm in Rapid City. The owners of the property vacillated between wanting to and not wanting to sell. While on a specimen-collecting trip for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, he and a friend “found” many snakes on the property. As the owners were quite frightened of snakes these discoveries helped them to overcome their indecision and go ahead with the sale of the property which remains the family homestead still.
Jack was a man of extraordinary intellect and an insatiable curiosity about everything. He was fascinated, for instance, by magnetic fields. For years he kept on his desk a little display he crafted from two small bar magnets, one glued to a heavy rectangular base, the other floating above the first, kept in place by four threads holding it so that like poles faced each other. The like poles facing each other kept the magnets pushing away from one another, and the threads prevented the top one from twisting and falling down on its companion. The force of the competing magnetic fields was strong enough to support the weight of the top magnet – a fact that Jack found fascinating, and one he predicted many years ago would find significant industrial value in such things as high-speed transportation.
His talent for finding inventive solutions to problems was put to the test more than once during his service in World War II. When his platoon was erroneously ordered into a precarious situation, essentially sitting ducks along a small river in a valley with a German battalion looking down on them from the mountainside, Jack knew they were doomed unless he could pull off a highly unlikely move.
He took a small squad of men in a roundabout way, through the trees and up the hill behind the German battalion. On their way up the hill, remaining as invisible as possible, he and his men cut off the German communication lines, ambushed the soldiers sent out to repair the damage, caused mischief in a number of ways, and at one point actually disabled a Panzer tank by shooting directly into the gun muzzle. The result is that the German battalion surrendered. A small squad of inspired and determined men, following a brave and imaginative leader, captured that entire German battalion, a feat rarely duplicated, and for which Captain Norris’ men nominated him for the Silver Star.
Jack’s career included many twists and turns. Dropping out of college to take care of a new family he took a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Evanston, Ill. Within months, he became the manager of that restaurant. After the war while going to Columbia University he worked for an advertising firm, then for a marketing research firm. After graduation from Columbia he was invited to join the firm of Graham W. Parker as a management consultant. This would prove to be a successful and long-lasting relationship. Within a few years Mr. Parker asked Jack to open a branch office in Brussels, Belgium.
The family moved with him and spent the next three years living in Belgium. With the new branch office successfully up and running Mr. Parker asked Jack to transfer to the branch office in Paris, France.
Paris became home for Jack and his family for the next three years.
After six years abroad the family returned to the U.S. and took up residence in Evanston, the city where Jack and Marian had met many years earlier in high school when they were 15 and 16 years old. They fell in love and just never let go of one another for the next almost 70 years. Their parents were not in favor of this match, which is why Jack got sent off to finish high school at Culver Military Academy in Indiana, where he became a skilled horseman and graduated on June 1, 1939, in Troop II. From there he went to the University of Chicago and reunion with the love of his life, Marian.
Back in the Chicago-land area, after a few more years of marketing American business know-how and a final overseas assignment to Japan in the summer of 1961 Jack was ready for a change. He accepted a management position with a firm in North Chicago. For the next dozen years, or so, Jack split his time between northern Illinois and northern Michigan, alternating between his position as a ‘suit-and-tie’ management executive and as a machete-wielding working man in Trees, Inc., the seasonal Christmas tree business that he and his father operated together until his father’s death in 1974 when Jack took it over and moved his home to Rapid City, Mich.
The Three Lakes Association was formed in 1966, a grassroots organization intent on protecting the precious water resources of Torch Lake, Clam Lake and Lake Bellaire. Earl and Carol Norris became members the year after TLA came into being; their sons, Jack and Brad, promptly followed suit. Jack and Brad both remained dedicated to the vision and mission of TLA for the rest of their lives.
Jack served as the secretary of the Torch Lake Township Zoning Board of Appeals in the early 1990s and as a member of the Antrim County Planning Commission from 1996 to 2004. During this time he also contributed to the prevention of a potentially major pollution of Torch Lake. A campground on the shore of Torch Lake was being considered for conversion to a huge condominium resort. The groundwater was heavily polluted by gasoline that had leaked for a couple of decades from an underground storage tank. He researched the history of the leak and produced a detailed report that the DNR has relied on ever since. His work provided the basis for denial of the development that, had it been allowed, would have delivered spilled gasoline directly into Torch Lake. He also did the detailed research necessary and the writing of the initial Recreation Plan for Torch Lake Township that was an important element in obtaining grant funds for the acquisition of the campground property and the development of the township’s Day Park. Indeed, the DNR has used his Recreation Plan as a model and guide for others seeking to create their plans.
During his long career as a dedicated protector of the environment Jack contributed directly to the reduction of septic effluents polluting the lakes, to the prevention of unnecessary and harmful lake dredging at several sites and to the education of many people on the ways to protect our environmental resources.
Jack served on the TLA Board of Directors, beginning in the early 1970s and continuing until his death.
He served in several positions, including Zone Director, Water Quality Chair, Vice President, President, and Director Emeritus for Life. He attended his final board meeting via video teleconferencing from home on March 26, 2013, while recuperating from his last hospital stay.
He was preceded in death by parents, Earl and Carol Norris; brother, William B. “Brad” Norris; sister-in-law, Scotty Collins; and beloved wife, Marian.
Jack is survived by daughters, Tina (Larry) Fields and Dr. Rebecca Norris; sister-in-law, Elizabeth Norris; son-in-law, Don Kerste; family member, Jeanne Newman; cousins, John (Sylvia) Koschara, Bill (Barb) Koschara and Gene (Micky) Koschara; nephews, Todd (Minda) Norris, Bob (Paula Fipps) Norris, Craig Collins, Shawn (Carolyn Oakley) Collins and Durk Collins; nieces, Betsie Norris and Trisha Collins; grandson, Douglas Kerste; granddaughters, Cheryl Lynn (Brad) Fields, Dayna (Paul) Ford-Antosh and Adriana (Charles) Keith; step-granddaughters, Taryn (Wendell) Valbert and Tracie (John) Lacher; great-grandsons, Aaron Bennett, Taylor Fields, Charlie Keith and Nicky Ford; great-granddaughters, Chenoa Fields, Amanda Kerste, Micaela Fields, Madeline Keith, Kassidy Ford and Angeni Fields; many second and third cousins; and many close friends.
Charitable contributions in Jack’s honor and memory may be made to the Three Lakes Association, PO Box 689, Bellaire, MI 49615. Suggested designations would be the Carol Gray Norris Science Education Fund and the TLA Science Education Outreach Program, but any gift will be appreciated.