Joe Norris died at age 93 on February 19, 2001. This piece was published in the April 2001 issue of Bowlers Journal.
I didn’t know Joe Norris as long or as well as most of the people who are remembering him in print. But the man was so engaging that, once you met him, you felt you’d been friends with him forever. I sure did.
It was 1963, and I was 16 when I first read a profile Mort Luby Jr. had written about Joe. All the famous Norris stories were there—I particularly liked the one about the dead fish under the massage table—and I was impressed. Here was a guy zanier than any of my friends. Joe was retiring from Brunswick, and had told Mort, “Now I’m gonna sit on my butt and just watch the world go by.” We all know how that worked out.
Years later, when I started writing historical pieces about bowling, he was the logical person to contact. I remember the first time I called him. Nervous about disturbing a living legend, I stammered a little when he came on the line, saying I hoped Mr. Norris could spare me a few minutes.
“I read your stuff all the time; I was wondering when you’d get around to calling me,” he said. And by the way, he added, there was no Mr. Norris at that number. “Call me Joe—or just Norris.” And then he burst into a high-pitched little giggle that let me know all was right with the world.
After that, I would phone him every few months. Fortunately, those Chicago-to-San Diego long distance calls were a tax-deductible business expense, because Joe never knew the meaning of a short conversation. His memory was always vivid and sharp. Sometimes I suspected that a few of his memories were a bit too vivid to be absolute truth. But that was part of Norris Experience.
Once he really scared me. We were talking about his first 300 game, and he excused himself to get a scrapbook. A few seconds later, I heard a loud crash on the line. Then nothing.
A full minute went by. Then two minutes. By now my mind was racing—I had killed Joe Norris! Nobody in any bowling alley would ever talk to me again!
I was about to hunt up my rosary when Joe finally came back on the phone. “Sorry for the delay, Jake,” he said casually. “I knocked over the TV set.”
I finally got to meet him in the flesh in the summer of 1999. That was when I spent a memorable day at Mort’s home, working with Joe and a few more living legends on our list of the one hundred Bowlers of the Century.
Joe was in top form. He had an opinion and anecdote on just about everyone. What impressed me, though, was when he asked Tom Kouros for some advice on getting a different bowling ball. Joe might be over 90, but he was still a competitor.
The next day, our work finished, Mort had a dinner party. My wife Terri had been listening to Norris tales for years, and wasn’t sure what to expect. We had just entered the house, and were still greeting Mort and Pat, when suddenly Terri felt someone grab her arm and start kissing it from her hand up toward her shoulder. That was her introduction to Joe Norris.
Joe was in even better form with the ladies present. Now his stories were R-rated. One of them was about a famous star of the ‘40s, whose wife caught him in bed with another woman and promptly divorced him. Joe’s summation was priceless: “That man’s wife was really narrow-minded.”
On the way home, I wondered what Terri would be thinking about this old goat Norris. And her summation was priceless: “That’s what I want you to be like when you’re 91.”
The last time I talked to Joe was just after last year’s ABC Tournament. I had written about the leg brace he had to wear, and said that if you asked him, he might show it to you. “You clown!” he roared at me. “I must have had fifty guys at Albuquerque asking me to roll up my pants!” And then he giggled—someone had put something over on the great practical joker.
And now he’s gone. And I wish I had called him more often. And I wish that, just once more, I could hear that giggle.