In Memoriam

Gail Norris: Notebooks of Memories

In Memoriam - Gail Norris

Gail Norris was the kind of man who kept track of things.

He always carried a little notebook, four inches by five, and they were frequently filled and replaced, piling up in a neat stack where his children and grandchildren could later consider them.

Those notebooks were a constant, even while he taught at Denison, finished his master’s and doctorate degrees at Ohio State, and worked as head of the biology department at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio. (He later returned to Denison from 1959 until his retirement in 1984.) The notebooks contained student grades, quips and quotes overheard or seen in a newspaper, or a recipe for insect repellent, but all of it, as his daughter Linda said, “in the tiniest handwriting I have ever seen–you almost need a magnifying glass to read them.”

His notes may have been small and meticulous, but there was nothing cramped or pinched about Norris’ approach to life and teaching. In finishing his work on “parasitology” for his doctoral dissertation, Norris’ advisor told him that he would need “the complete life cycle” of the parasite to be described, so it would require the capture of more than 600 snakes, the bodies of which housed the parasites. His daughter Barbara remembers, “Dad started out catching them with gloves, but pretty soon he realized it was actually easier to just catch them barehanded.”

Norris had enlisted in the Navy for World War II after finishing his bachelor’s in education at Ohio University in 1941. He signed up along with a cousin, but they were soon separated. He ended up as a medic in the Naval Medical Research Unit, which went to Guadalcanal and Guam. Between his wartime experiences, and all those snakes and parasites of various sorts, there wasn’t much that could rattle him. One day, entering the building for a morning biology class, he was greeted by screaming down the hallway. Some pregnant specimens had given birth overnight, and the early arriving students were greeted by a stream of tiny little snakes “cascading down the staircase.” Which Norris likely gathered up barehanded.

Students both at Denison in the biology program, and also from summer programs around the country, stayed in touch with him both personally and professionally, and he relished the ongoing contact. Even the practical jokes that came along with those relationships, including the time his office door wouldn’t open because a weather balloon had been inflated inside. Norris’ idea of payback was to insert the former student’s phone number in a publication, where for months people would call up, wondering why this phone number was in a footnote. Norris usually got both the first and the last laugh with his students when he would occasionally wear a pink lab coat to class with embroidered front pockets that read, “Pass” and “Fail.”

His family still laughs at many such memories of him, while saddened by the fact that both he and his wife of 66 years, Faye, died within weeks of each other this past summer. Their many friends and fellow worshippers at Centenary United Methodist In Granville, where they were 50-year members, continue to tell their stories, and laugh, and remember.

Gail and Faye are survived by daughters Linda Wallace and Barbara Vogel, and son Ronald Norris, and his sister Thelma Starkey, along with four grandchildren.

Published November 2010