Saturday, July 30, 2011

Senator George Norris: Gentle Knight

Few Ohio children came in direct contact with the Civil War, but many who lived through those years were deeply affected by the conflict for the remainder of their lives. George Norris was one. Born not far from Clyde during the war’s first year, George was the youngest of 11 children and the only surviving son of Chauncy and Mary Mook Norris.

Of course, I had known that as a U. S. congressman and senator from Nebraska, Norris had exerted extraordinary power and influence during his 40-year career in Washington. What I didn’t know until reading his autobiography, “Fighting Liberal,” was the extent to which those childhood years had shaped his attitudes and motivated his every action throughout adulthood.

John Henry, Norris’ much older brother, had held a special place in their mother’s heart. Although she made John promise that he would not enlist, he eventually joined the 55th Ohio. At the Battle of Resaca, John wrote his mother that a bullet had pierced his leg. He assured her that it was only a minor wound, but word soon came that John Henry was dead from infection.
Norris Family Marker
York Free Chapel Cemetery
Courtesy of Don Heuring

Norris remembered that “my father’s death [some months later] intensified my mother’s grief over the loss of John. I never heard a song upon the lips of my mother. I never even heard her hum a tune. The song of life…. was silenced forever in the bitter grief and sorrow of those years between 1864 and 1867. The war ended, and the young men came back, but John slept in a soldier’s grave in the blackened southern countryside. There were times when it seemd that her heartache over her son never would pass.”

From that day forward, Mary Norris relied on faith, family, friends, and hard work. There were no government programs to serve as a safety net for families on the frontier, struggling to survive in an economy built on physical labor. As Norris tells it, not only did his mother spin, weave, wash, cook, sew, and can, but she worked in the fields and handled the family’s finances.

His childhood memories of his mother’s grief and “grim drudgery and grind which had been the common lot of eight generations of American farm women” never left him. That vision of loss and of so many grown old before their time drove Norris to find ways to improve the lives of America’s farm families in whom he believed so deeply.

Today it is difficult to comprehend that only 10% of America’s farms had electricity during those years. Norris knew that hydropower could dramatically change their lives. Tempered by childhood adversity, the “Gentle Knight,” as many called him, was up to the challenge. From 1912 to 1933, right through the Great Depression, he fought on, enduring presidential vetoes and resistance from his own party. In the end, he was victorious. The Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Act that soon followed, tamed the Tennessee River and brought flood control, hydropower, and light to thousands of poor farm families across a six-state region. One insightful journalist wrote that “the powerful senator had fought for the poor and the beaten down…and he seemed never to forget that in his own time he had been among them…” .

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