William P. Norris, emeritus professor of sociology at Oberlin College, died April 12, 2014, at Judson Park retirement community in Cleveland after a long illness. He is survived by his daughter, Faryl Janis, and her husband, Greg Doughty, of University Heights, Ohio, grandchildren Griffin and Charlotte Doughty, sisters Melissa Filley and Alison Wilson of Denver, and his life partner of 35 years, Clayton Koppes, of Cleveland.
Professor Norris graduated from the University of Arizona in 1965 with a major in English. He received his master’s degree in sociology at the University of Florida in 1969 and his PhD in sociology at Harvard University in 1977. After teaching briefly at Wellesley College, he taught at Oberlin College from 1978 until his retirement in 2004.
He served in the Peace Corps in Salvador Bahia, Brazil, from 1965 to 1967, where he worked as a community organizer in a favela (squatter settlement). United States dignitaries, including Senators Robert Kennedy and Frank Church, were among those who stopped to see his work.
Professor Norris returned to Salvador Bahia to research and write his dissertation on the survival strategies employed by marginal and working class people in Brazil’s favelas. Gaining fluency in Portuguese, he published well regarded studies on favelas in academic journals.
He translated his interest in social justice into research on poverty in Lorain County, Ohio, and on the mixed experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students and faculty in higher education.
Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Composition and English Jan Cooper remembers, “What I treasure the most was the opportunity I had to work with him in the early days of the Ad Hoc Committee on Lesbian and Gay Concerns. Watching him guide that committee through the rigors of designing a campus-wide survey to assess conditions for lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people—the first of its kind in the country—then conducting, reporting, and following up on it, transformed my sense of what social sciences research could do for a community.”
Under Professor Norris’s leadership, that committee established many critical parts of Oberlin’s current community—the clause about sexuality in the college’s Affirmative Action statement, domestic partnership benefits, and a tenured position in Sexuality Studies. He also provided crucial support and leadership for other significant accomplishments, such as the inclusion of LGBT issues in the Multicultural Resource Center, and the institution of the Lambda Alumni organization.
Professor Cooper recalls, “…Bill was a model for me of how a responsible member of a scholarly community works. He listened to everyone, from the freshest first year student to the saltiest senior colleague, with equal respect and critical intelligence… Thanks to the even-tempered but resolute clarity Bill brought to those occasions, change occurred that deeply affected the lives of others, and left Oberlin a more honest, humane place.”
Chairing Oberlin’s sociology department several times, Professor Norris was elected by his colleagues to major college committees, including the College Faculty Council. For twenty-five years, he taught the social theory course that all sociology majors were required to take.
Professor Norris was the founding chair of Oberlin’s Comparative American Studies Program and, with his partner, received the first alumni award from Oberlin’s Lambda Alumni organization.
He was honored with the Multicultural Resource Center’s first “living legacy” award. Associate Professor of Religion and African American Studies A.G. Miller writes, “I served with Bill when he chaired the committee that crafted the Multicultural Resource Center and I learned much from him as he deftly led that committee to rethink multicultural services on the Oberlin campus. Bill had an extraordinary gift to bring a sharp analysis and a sharp wit to any subject that he addressed.”
Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature Tim Scholl fondly remembers Professor Norris’ “enormous personal charm” and recalls, “His activism was quiet and sustained, led by the heart, but governed by the head… I won't forget a question Bill once asked when I moved to a neighborhood populated with thirty-something [auto] workers, most of whom had never met a gay person before, and had certainly never had an opportunity to discuss the subject openly. I had plenty of stories of nights in garages drinking beer around half-dismantled cars, but Bill once asked how my activism was coming along. Activism? I thought we were just having fun. But I began to understand the potential Bill saw in even these seemingly casual exchanges. For Bill, activism began with educating, and continued through a sustained process of listening and involvement.”
Outside of his work, Professor Norris loved to travel, dance, hike, play squash, garden, cook, play with his grandchildren, and listen to music (Brazilian, classical, and rock ‘n roll).
Associate Professor of Sociology Veljko Vujacic notes, “Bill Norris combined the spirit of Yankee progressivism with the grace of a Southern gentleman. He was gentle, kind, and open to everyone who ever met him, and he took on life's challenges with a gracious smile… we will all remember him for what he was—a real Mensch.”
Writes Associate Professor of Politics Eve Sandberg, “What a wonderful human being was Bill Norris. Bright in every way, Bill was both smart and delightful. He had a brightness that was charming, a wit that contextualized complicated issues and took them seriously even as it made certain none of us should take ourselves too seriously. Bill Norris' outlook and values are much needed in this world today.”
Funeral services will be private. A memorial service will be scheduled at Oberlin College in late May.
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