Summit seeks ways to tell Norris story
McCOOK, Nebraska -- While "lots of people don't care about a dead politician," they're still among all of those impacted by the accomplishments and continuing legacy of a Nebraska congressman and senator -- dead now 69 years -- whom history recognizes as one of the nation's greatest politicians.
Those interested in telling the story of Nebraska Congressman and Senator George W. Norris (July 11, 1861 -- Sept. 2, 1944) gathered at a "Norris Planning Summit" Friday, Jan. 11, with the goal of stimulating support for the Norris House in McCook and identifying partners in the funding and promotion of the story of Norris' impact on Nebraska and on all of America.
Norris served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, as a Republican, from 1903 until 1913, and five terms in the U.S. Senate from 1913 until 1943, four terms as a Republican and one term as an Independent.
He is recognized as the father of the Rural Electrification Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority and Nebraska's one-house Legislature, the Unicameral. Norris is noted for his fight to reduce the autocratic control of the speaker of the house and for his advocacy of public ownership of hydroelectric-power plants. Nebraska is the only state in America totally served by a consumer-owned public power system that delivers electricity as a nonprofit service.
Norris' legislative accomplishments include the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which ended the 13-month "lame-duck" gap between the election of a Congressman and that member's seating; and the 1932 Norris-La Guardia Act, which strengthened organized labor's collective bargaining hand.
Norris was born in Sandusky County, Ohio, moved to Beaver City, Nebraska, to practice law in 1883, and relocated his practice to McCook in 1900.
His home in McCook -- on the community's main street, which is named "Norris Avenue" -- was donated to the Nebraska State Historical Society in 1968 by Norris' second wife, Ellie. The George W. Norris State Historic Site is a "National Historic Landmark."
In 1955, the Senate selected Norris as one of five outstanding former members whose portraits would be displayed in the Senate Reception Room. However, three years later, Nebraska's own senators, conservatives Roman Hruska and Carl T. Curtis who disagreed with Norris' political positions, threatened a filibuster and Norris' name was dropped from consideration.
In 1999, when the list was expanded to seven, Norris again made "the short list," but not the final cut.
Norris is one of eight senators profiled in John F. Kennedy's book, "Profiles in Courage." Norris wrote, "Fighting Liberal: The Autobiography of George W. Norris."
Motivated by facilitator Martha Gadbury of Lincoln, the summit group in McCook identified these means by which to create and/or improve opportunities to tell Norris' story:
* Walking tours in McCook with historical re-enactors.
* Expanded hours at the Norris House and, with enhanced Norris exhibits, at the Museum of the High Plains.
* Building Norris' history into school curriculum and familiarizing new teachers in the McCook Public Schools system with Norris' legacy.
* Essay contests.
* Tourism and Heritage Square walking tour brochures.
* Increased signage on highways.
* Developing "sister city" relationships with Mussel Shoals, Alabama, and Norris, Tennessee.
* Placarding Crete and Werner carrier trucks, which drive nation-wide, with Norris slogans and website information.
* QR ("Quick Response," square bar codes that store digital information, for use with "smart" phones) codes on signage at the Norris House and on other sites on McCook's "Heritage Square" historical walking tour.
* Working with "Buffalo Commons" story tellers, and with biographers and poets to tell the Norris story.
* Brown bag lunches and debate/lecture series.
* Radio announcements: Instructions on highway signage to "Turn way to the right of the radio dial" coordinated with information about Norris.
* Hire a press agent.
* Return historical displays removed by the Nebraska Historical Society from the Norris House.
* The creation of a nation-wide organization and board to promote the Norris legacy.
* Revive interest in Nebraska Sen. Tom Vickers' legislation to create a "George Norris Day."
* Promotion of a George W. Norris documentary by possibly NET.
* Reach out to Beaver City to see if the community wants to be involved in promotion efforts of George Norris.
* Writers Gene Budig and Don Walton are republishing and expanding articles that were published on Norris' 100th birthday.
Duane Tappe of McCook wondered aloud, during discussion of promotion of the Norris House, "Maybe we have this backwards. Promote George Norris and someone will come to see the house. Not promote the house to teach people about George Norris."
Regardless, the house needs some attention, Tappe said. It needs stucco repair, work on the slate sidewalk and driveway. It needs paint inside and out, and underground sprinklers. The doorbell doesn't work.
The basement displays, interpreting Norris' life and legislation, were removed from the basement due, in part, to handicap inaccessibility, and taken to Lincoln. Suggestions were made that the displays could be reset in the house's living room or possibly the garage, or moved to the Museum of the High Plains.
Gene O. Morris, of the Norris Foundation, suggested a face-to-face meeting with the state historical society, seeking answers to questions about repairs and maintenance to and the future of the Norris House. McCook City Manager Jeff Hancock added, "We need to promote George Norris to the state historical society, not only the George Norris House.
Gene Morris is promoting the creation of an "REA Eternal Light" display in McCook,"to honor the extraordinary importance of rural electrification to America's farmers, ranchers and rural communities," and to memorialize the ideals of George W. Norris.
The idea was developed with the help of three residents of McCook and three former McCookites: Ben Nelson, Nebraska's former U.S. senator; Dr. Gene Budig, former president of baseball's American League; Robert Douglass, a respected, retired architect; Cloyd Clark, a former judge who founded the Norris Institute; Dennis Berry, mayor of McCook; and Morris,
Morris said a national steering committee will "carry the idea forward from a vision to reality."
Members of the national steering committee for the REA "Eternal Light" Display are:
* David Norris Rath, the great-grandson of Sen. Norris; Tom Vickers, former Nebraska State Senator; Jerda Thompson Vickers, former McCook mayor; Jon Morrison, son of Nebraska governor, Frank B. Morrison; Sharon McDonald Morrison, daughter-in-law of Gov. Morrison; Sharyn Bell Skiles, publisher of the McCook Daily Gazette;
* Mike Hendricks, instructor at McCook Community College; Don Harpst, retired publisher and nursing home administrator; Tilman Adair, director of Boulevard Presbyterian Church-Denver; Bill Longnecker, McCook jeweler and artisan; Mark Graff, chairman of McCook National Bank; J.T. Harris Jr., Secretary of John Harris Farms Inc.; Bob Harris, retired staff member with the Tennessee Valley Authority;
* Michelle Gill, interim vice president of McCook Community College; Marita Morris, leasing manager for Reagan Resources Inc.; Michelle Morris Spieker, author of "The Cherished Self"; Don Moore, president of First Central Bank;
* Doug Skiles, Certified Public Accountant; Dale Dueland, farmer and community activist; Bruce McDowell, McCook City councilman; Jay Harris, international projects coordinator for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay;
* Susan Harris Broomfield, marketing coordinator for Invest Nebraska Corporation; Bryant Brooks, McCook attorney at law; Allen Beermann, executive director of the Nebraska Press Association;
* As well as the originating planning committee of Morris, Clark, Berry, Nelson, Budig and Douglass.
Partners identified in the promotion of George Norris include: the Norris Institute and the George W. Norris Foundation, the Norris House in McCook, former Nebraska senator and McCook native Ben Nelson, NET, McCook Public Schools and its FFA organization, McCook Community College, the Nebraska College of Technical College in Curtis, REA and TVA.
The list continues: The Nebraska Historical Society, the High Plains Historical Society and Museum of the High Plains, the Young Professionals Group, McCook Area Chamber of Commerce, the City of McCook, Red Willow County and Red Willow County's Visitors Committee, McCook Economic Development Corp., environmental groups, Red Willow County Extension and UNL Extension, Boy and Girl Scouts, Rotary Interact.
Morris insists that promotion of George Norris does not need to cost great amounts of money. "We can think creatively without spending a lot of money," he told those at the summit meeting. "Don't be deterred by money."
Supporters are encouraged to look at city, county, state and federal grants; corporate grants; fund drives; and the sale of Norris merchandise. Former McCook resident Jay Harris, international projects coordinator for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, has offered his experience in writing grant proposals.
Morris plans a news release promoting Norris and one of his greatest accomplishments,Nebraska's Unicameral legislature.
This release will be sent nation-wide, he said, and include this comment about the Unicameral's current leadership positions (eight Democrats, seven Republicans and one Independent) by former Nebraska senator Tom Vickers of Farnam: "This is significant. In this time of political rancor, where spokesmen for both parties are mean-spirited, impolite and poor examples of the fellowship which predominates in America, it is refreshing to see a process where party lines don't make a difference. I'm so proud of the men and women who comprise the roster of the 2013 Nebraska non-partisan, Unicameral legislature. Because of the two-term limit in effect in Nebraska, many of them are new to legislative service, but when it came time to vote for the Speaker's position and committee chairmanships, they did not ask questions about party affiliation. They chose the best person for the job, no matter whether those persons were Republicans, Democrats or Independents."