April 6, 2009

Rell: 'Connecticut really has lost a legend'

Looking back on the opportunity to grow up at Lake Compounce, the historic amusement park owned in part by his family, J. Harwood “Stretch” Norton called himself “one lucky kid.”

He paused, smiled, and added that the rest of his life had been pretty lucky, too.

Norton, a former mayor who later became the manager of the park where he played as a child, died Friday at the age of 86 after years of frail health. His funeral is Wednesday morning.

"Everybody knew Stretch, and Stretch knew everybody. He never forgot a name," Gov. Jodi Rell said. "Stretch loved life, he loved people, and he most certainly loved Bristol. Connecticut really has lost a legend."

Norton spent a single term as mayor starting in 1969, but he also put in six terms as a city councilor, graduated from Yale University, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, worked as an engineer for the Wallace Barnes Co., palled around with famous musicians and packed his life with family, friends and service to his community.

"It's a great, great loss to the city," said former Mayor Frank Nicastro. "He will always be remembered as someone who loved his city and as Mr. Lake Compounce."

Norton spent countless hours as a child at the park, where he learned how everything worked and knew most everyone who came by. At the height of the Depression, he once told a reporter, he had to loan his father the $7 he'd collected so the family could eat during a period when the banks closed.

Serving on a small seaplane tender in the U.S. Navy after his 1944 graduation from Yale, Norton saw an astounding array of ships off Okinawa, where troops stormed ashore in 1945 to begin the invasion of Japan itself.

He said he watched as kamikaze pilots rammed their planes into nearby ships, causing massive explosions and far too much death.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Norton said the terrorists’ assault with captured passenger planes brought back memories of the horror he witnessed as a young man in the Pacific War. For a long while after the attack, Norton convinced some area churches to toll their bells monthly to mark the awful moment and ensure it would never be forgotten.

Returning from the war, Norton worked at the park but also got a job as an engineer for the Wallace Barnes Steel division of Associated Spring, where he ultimately became the top plant engineer before stepping down two decades later. 

But he's remembered by many during the 1940s and 1950s as the ticket taker for scores of Big Band  concerts at the Casino building at Lake Compounce, where he got to know legends such as Tommy Dorsey, Maynard Ferguson and Frank Sinatra.

Despite all that time at the ballroom, wife Carolyn Norton said Monday, her husband "never learned how to dance." She said she discovered he had "two left feet" on an early date to a square dance near her home in Ohio.

"Turns out he only liked ballrooms when he could collect tickets," she said.

She said he was a natural prankster, giving friends golf clubs that bent like a spring and even stringing his bride-to-be in Ohio along for nearly a full day that he'd left her engagement ring behind in Connecticut. He said she could wear his clunky Yale ring instead.

He also played a lot of sports, loved to bowl and enjoyed eating out.

Carolyn Norton said her husband "was honest. He was considerate of people. He respected other people. He listened to what they had to say."

Norton's government service began when he ran as an independent and captured a council seat in 1959. He lost it two years later after supporting a policy change that required residents to bring their trash to the curb instead of having city crews find the cans themselves.

But Norton bounced back to recapture the seat two years later, holding it for a single term.

"He's one politician who always told you what he was thinking and didn't go back on his word," former Mayor Mike Werner said. That cost him the election, Werner said.

"He did what he thought was the right thing to do regardless of public opinion."

Norton guided the town through its worst economic period since the Great Depression, struggling to bolster an economy in which one in four Bristol workers were unemployed. During his stint as mayor, Norton played a pivotal role in securing the funding to construct Route 229 and later said he set the stage for ESPN to locate in Bristol through his work on industrial redevelopment in the area.

"If it weren’t for that succeeding, I don’t think ESPN would be in Bristol today," Norton said years later.

Norton was so chronically late to everything that his friends used to call him "the late Mayor Norton," said Werner. His punctual impairment -- combined with his penchant for the personal touch -- once had Norton writing out fund-raising letters on Election Night, Werner said.

From 1989 until 1997, he served as a city councilor, and followed that with a seven-year stint as a public works commissioner. He had been the first chairman of the Public Works Board back in 1960.

When he lost the council seat in 1997, Nicastro immediately appointed Norton to the the Public Works Board once again, despite their different political affiliations.

"When he disagreed, he did it as a gentleman. There were no hard feelings. He believed in what he was doing," Nicastro said.

On the public works panel, Norton said he could focus on the day-to-day necessities of keeping the city's streets, drains and walkways in good shape -- which was always what he liked best anyway.

"No politics, just government," as Norton put it. "It’s my favorite place to work in the city.”

Norton is survived by his wife, Carolyn, four children and five grandchildren.

Calling hours are from 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Funk Funeral Home. A funeral service is slated for 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. Joseph Church, with a private burial with military honors to follow in the Lake Avenue cemetery, where generations of Nortons are laid to rest.

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.
Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

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