There has been too much death in my life the last two weeks. A childhood friend, distant cousin, a friendly face from my youth, a friend’s Grandmother, and now Ken Norton. Almost everyone will ask, “Ken Norton?”. How does he fit into that list of people that touched my life. Well, I’ll tell you.
As most stories do, it starts even before I was born (because it all ultimately leads to me)! My Dad was a musician. He played country music and was a local celebrity. His dream was to make it big on the Nashville scene. I’m not terribly clear on the actual timeline of events, but Mom and Dad were married in 1955 and moved around a bit after that. Dad’s Martin guitar is a 1956 model, so I am assuming that he, Mom, and the Martin traveled down to Nashville in around 1956 or so. He made an appearance on the Ralph Emery Radio Show, was backstage at the Grand Old Opry (the original one) and met Roy Acuff, and many others I can’t remember. There are pictures in albums at home that tell that story. Dad recorded several 45s for Nashville Records.
He recorded a song he wrote “Bright Lights Uptown”. Long story short, he lost the rights to it, it was published under the name Cowboy Copas on a posthumous album, the lawyer wound up in jail, the rights were purchased by a music conglomerate, it is still on lists as one of Honky Tonk’s best songs, and can be purchased mp3 on almost any sales site. Just like a country song. Because of that experience, he and Mom hosted country stars in their home when they came to Arthur, Illinois for the fair. Yep, Arthur. Yes, Amish, buggies, corn, etc. Apparently at the time, it was a hopping fair for country singers. Dotty West was at the house and in fact, Ferlin Husky was perfecting “Wings of a Dove” in their shower.
We heard these stories every once in a while. Almost every time they told the stories, someone would ask, “What were they like?”. The reply from Mom and Dad was always “Just like everybody else”. That was one thing that was instilled in me (I can’t speak for my siblings) was that no one is better or worse than us, don’t put famous people on a pedestal and don’t look down on those with less than you. Treat everyone you meet with respect.
I believe it was Dad’s first by-pass surgery (yes, first we are the poster children for heart disease). Living in Central Illinois, the premiere hospital for heart care was in Springfield. Dad was admitted, we, the family were shown the video of the surgery that was planned for Dad, and then the waiting began. We said our goodbyes, and went to the surgical waiting room to wait to hear how the surgery went. The room was fairly full, and there were rumors of someone famous being there with us. We heard Ken Norton in the room waiting for his Father to come out of surgery.
He wasn’t hard to miss, because I had seen his picture. He seemed big at the time, but probably because he was so muscular. He was 6′ 3″ and 220 pounds in his prime. My Dad was 6′ 5″ and about the same weight, but more belly. I’m not really intimidated by size coming from a tall family. What I remember most about him was how fast he put away a giant bag of green grapes! He must have had previous visits to hospitals, because he seemed prepared. You can tell when a family is used to waiting in hospitals. We come in like gypsies, hauling in food, drinks, entertainment, and comfy clothes, knowing what waiting long hours requires. A couple of other things I also noticed were that no one tried to introduce themselves to him and he never asked for special privileges. We were all there for the same thing, we were all the same.
What he did do with his celebrity was to make his way around the floor in the days during his Dad’s and my Dad’s recovery and visit people. Introducing himself and encouraging people to get better. Sharing stories and laughs. He would send my parents Christmas cards for several years after that time and called more times that I know to check in with them to see how they were doing. I don’t know how many people he did that with, but that was a generous man with his most important gift. His time.
I only spoke with him briefly when he called to talk to Mom and Dad. I passed on the phone and listened to Mom and Dad both get on the phone and laugh with what you would have thought was an old friend. Rest in peace Mr. Norton.