A Life: Bob Norman; ‘He brought it to another level’

  • In 2019, Bob Norman was honored by the Hanover Conservancy for his work in helping to preserve an overlook area of the Mink Brook in Hanover, N.H. (Family photograph) Family photograph

  • Bob Norman, right, collects apple cores and other compostable material as Athos Rassias, left, and Paul Manganiello talk with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center employees during a Community Sustainability Workshop at the community center in Hanover, N.H., on Feb. 7, 2009. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. vlley news file — James M. Patterson

  • Nita and Bob Norman with their two sons Jeff and Rick in Hawaii in a circa 1980 photograph. (Family photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/18/2022 8:00:27 PM
Modified: 9/18/2022 7:59:48 PM

HANOVER — Bob Norman wore threadbare shirts and khakis with patches on the knees. He used the same tea bag 10 times. He was frugal, and adverse to all kinds of waste, but he was never cheap.

Every Tuesday Norman ordered take-out from a Chinese restaurant for his coworkers in the Dartmouth Mathematics Department. “And then he would collect everyone’s containers, because he was very sustainable,” Tracy Moloney, the department’s administrator, said. “As all mathematicians are actually, but he brought it to another level.”

Moloney described Norman’s office as a dense maze of tall file stacks, leading to a tiny TV-tray-sized desk. Towers of old Chinese takeout containers were in a constant teeter, threatening to fall onto his work. “I would always say to him ‘Bob, it’s not really recycling if you just hoard it in your office,’ ” Moloney said, adding that she didn’t know how he lived close to a century.

“He ate rotten food all the time. Someone would leave their Chinese lunch in the fridge for two weeks and he’d say, ‘I’ll eat it!’ ”

Norman, who taught in the math department for nearly 60 years, died on June 27 after a period of failing health. He was 97.

His anti-waste crusade was born of a deep environmental ethic that conserved much more than tea bags. A quietly fierce environmentalist, Norman was the first president of the Sierra Club’s New England chapter, and in 1961 co-founded the Hanover Conservation Council, now known as the Hanover Conservancy.

In 1999, Norman led the ultimately successful effort to protect the 112-acre Mink Brook Nature Preserve – then set to become a subdivision – and would continue to spend almost half a century on the board of directors.

“I mean, what dedication,” Adair Mulligan, the conservancy’s executive director, said. “He had the ability to see something so huge through, and to not just say ‘I’m going to play with this for five or ten years and move on.’ He was a steady voice of guidance behind the scenes for each of us all this time.”

In 2019, the Hanover Conservancy dedicated the Norman Overlook, a ring of flat, bench-like stones surrounded by native dogwood and serviceberry shrubs with a view of a bend in Mink Brook.

Even on center stage, he remained soft spoken. At the dedication ceremony, Norman spent his entire four minute speech thanking other people. “He was never a showoff,” Bob Schultz, a friend, said. “Bob loved living, but always with a gentle spirit that cared about other people.”

His waste-not-want-not attitude kept a lot in his brain too: Poems, languages, telephone numbers. Norman and his wife Nita were one of the first couples to move into the Woodlands Assisted Living Community in Lebanon, and by the time he passed away, Norman knew everyone in the Woodlands’ telephone numbers by heart. An elephantine memory kept him speaking Spanish and reciting poetry decades after learning both, and drove his professional life as well.

A devoted professor, Norman continued teaching and researching graph theory and combinatorics even after he technically retired from the college in 1990. He was the Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon’s thesis advisor when he was a student at the college in the seventies, and only stopped working in the math department “the day before he died,” his oldest son Jeff said.

One of his greatest lasting legacies at the college will be the early role he played in the founding of the Women in Science Program, also known as WISP. Norman mentored over 50 WISP students in the course of his time at Dartmouth.

A dedicated advocate of and researcher into voting issues — Norman was a preeminent voice in the field of mathematics on “approval voting” — he wrote numerous papers on the subject and brought students to conferences with him into his nineties. He published a letter on the topic in The New York Times at 91, asking “how likely is it that ranked voting will be supported by the two major parties, since it will weaken the very political stranglehold they perpetuate?”

”When my friends saw it in the paper they called me and said, ‘Your dad’s got game,” Jeff said.

Norman broke his hip this past winter and moved in to Hanover Terrace to recuperate. Moloney, the department administrator, visited him every day, bringing his favorite banana bread and political news or math department chatter.

“When he was living there with his broken hip, he would overdue it,” Moloney said. “He insisted that he needed to do his exercises. At 97 years old he was doing sit ups.”

When the math department wanted to throw a 90th birthday party for Norman, they had to reschedule because he was busy playing tennis.

Norman’s loss of sight towards the end of his life was painful for him, but it didn’t get in the way of much besides his time on the tennis court. When he couldn’t see well enough to drive, Moloney helped hire a driver to pick him up and bring him into the office, where he could do his work from a computer installed with a voice-control software.

“He’s an amazing example of someone who feels like they always have more to give to this universe,” Moloney said.

Norman met his wife of 70 years, Nita, on a group ski trip around 1952 in Ann Arbor, M.I. where he was a doctoral student at the University of Michigan following three years of Army service during World War II. He wooed Nita with puns, which continued after the trip on postcards, and then the couple was married by Nita’s father in front of her family’s fireplace.

“There were three mathematicians trying to teach me how to ski,” Nita said. “And I always say ‘I picked the best mathematician of all! And I really did because the others, they eventually weren’t as interesting as Bob.” The couple spent the first week of their honeymoon at Crescent Lake Lodge in Washington, and then ascended a fire tower, keeping watch in Mount Rainier National Park for the rest of the summer.

He and Nita raised their two sons Rick and Jeff, played ping pong together (Nita was the Woodlands champ), hit tennis balls into their late eighties, participated in folk dancing events across the country, and incessantly wrote limericks to one another.

When Bob was choosing between post-doc positions at Princeton and Purdue, he and Nita wrote a pair of rhymes to help think through the decision.

“Should we go to Princeton for a pittance/for the pleasure of admittance to the seat of higher learning. Those Purdue folks are pretty dim/but the checks are not so slim.”

The Normans were devoted activists. In protest of the Vietnam War, they spearheaded a Memorial Day write-in campaign that sent 50,000 postcards to a collection of congressional offices.

The couple also had one of the first hybrid cars to hit the roads in New England, and drove in a rally of green vehicles from Boston to the Capitol Building in D.C. Their license plate read: “70+mpg.”

“They used to park that car next to SUVs, thinking it made the drivers feel guilty,” Jeff said.

“In the sixties, I was working on abortion rights and Bob got a badge that said ‘Trust Women’ — he would wear that badge everywhere we went,” Nita said laughing.

Fran Tannian, a friend from Woodlands, described Norman as having “the cleanest view of life.”

“I don’t know how else to put it,” she said. “People for Bob were valuable for who they are, not for what degrees they have or how much money they’ve got in the bank. That’s why he was just a delight to be around.”

Betsy Barnes, a friend, visited Norman on the day that he died. “He knew he was dying, but he was just sitting up in bed and smiling at me, as if it was no problem,” Barnes said.

Even at the end of his life, Norman was still rounding up Woodlands residents whenever there was a comet or an eclipse, beckoning them out into the courtyard to look up at the night sky.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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