Commemorating O. Richard Norton (1937-2009)

Tuesday evening late, I received an email from Dorothy Norton, and as I started to read it my reaction was identical to Zelimir's: “An undefined forewarning immediately crossed my mind ... Oh my God, NO! ... not Richard ... not HIM"!

But yes, it was him; Richard had passed away, after a long illness.

He is gone but he has not really left us and never will, as long as we have his books. As Kathie McConnel put it: “I never got to meet Richard in person but I felt as if we were friends through his books. I relied on his experiences, knowledge, passion, and expertise to educate me about meteorites. Many nights that I read from his books we had conversations in my head and heart. I felt that he was there talking to me and I could see his smile”.

Tucson, 2002

Tucson, 2002
Photo: Anne Black

As great as his books were, Richard was much more than that. In 1997, he introduced himself to Andrzej Pilski this way:

“You asked me about my experience in the planetarium. I have been director of two planetariums, both in university environments. I received practical training at the Griffith Observatory and Planetarium in Los Angeles while I was an astronomy student at the University of California. I liked the planetarium environment so much that I decided to make it a career. My first directorship was at the Fleishmann Planetarium at the University of Nevada in Reno. I opened the planetarium and worked there for 10 years. While there I designed a 35 mm motion picture projection system to project film over the entire dome area. We called it the Atmospherium since it was first used to produce time lapse motion pictures of weather phenomena in the planetarium. I filmed the Apollo 10, 11, 12, 14, and 17 liftoffs to the moon from 1969 to 1972. Our cameras were on the launch pad only 800 feet from the base of the Saturn 5 rocket. Many of these experiences are related in a book I wrote in 1969, The Planetarium and Atmospherium: An Indoor Universe.

I was a consultant for the Minolta Camera Company and worked to design their line of planetarium projectors. I worked with their engineers for six years and helped to install five of their projectors around the United States.

I left the University of Nevada to take a position at the University of Arizona in Tucson in 1973, an important research center for Astronomy. I designed a multimillion dollar planetarium and science museum complex on the campus. It is called the Flandrau Planetarium and Science Center. I worked with optical scientists on the campus to design and build a fisheye projection system for a 50 foot dome. In 1984, our cameras flew aboard the Challenger Space Shuttle and made the first 180° motion picture film in space. Today there are at least six of these systems in various planetaria around the United States. I left the University of Arizona after 14 years and moved to Bend, Oregon where I now teach astronomy in a small college and write articles and books and study meteorites. I also formed a company called Science Graphics that designs and manufactures science teaching slides in astronomy, planetary science, geology and paleontology. These slides are currently being used in about 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States and abroad.

That is briefly what I have been doing for the last 30 years.

O. Richard Norton

PS. I thought you would like a small meteorite for your growing collection, a gift from a fellow planetarian. It is a IIIA medium octahedrite iron from Henbury craters in Australia."

Richard’s Henbury and book

Richard's Henbury and book, displayed in the Meteorite Exhibit,
Muzeum Mikolaja Kopernicus, Frombork, Poland
Photo: Andrzej S. Pilski

Richard was not only a book-man, he loved to go out and hunt for his own meteorites. And he found his own Gold Basin, as Jack Schrader reminded us:

”I first met Richard 'Doc' Norton on a very cold but sunny morning in Gold Basin. I think the year was 1997. Twink and Jim were there as well as John Blennert and my son Devin and we were all standing around shivering in the cold morning air talking and shifting around trying to catch the first early rays of sunshine and a little warmth when the back of a station wagon with Oregon plates popped open and Richard slowly emerged from his sleeping bag like a bear coming out of hibernation. Hands in his coat pockets, he had a huge smile on his face and he could not have been happier that morning than to have a full day of nothing else to do before him but hunt for meteorites. He was full of enthusiasm and optimistic that he 'was going to find a meteorite' that very day. His enthusiasm was contagious and he never uttered a discouraging word and kept the rest of us going and excited. I am proud to say that I hunted meteorites with Richard that day and I was there when he found his 175 gram Gold Basin stone.”

Jim Kriegh and Richard Norton in Gold Basin

Jim Kriegh and Richard Norton in Gold Basin, April 1998
Photo: Twink Monrad

As long as his health permitted, Richard was a permanent fixture in the Tucson show. He was always ready to look at new meteorites, and answered all questions from newcomers and experts, collectors and dealers. He also did some shopping for his own collection, and bought some thin-sections from Steve Arnold:

”A memory that pops into my mind just now is of a meeting with Richard and Dorothy over lunch in Tucson, one year. Richard wanted to see what I had in the way of thin sections when I pulled out 6 Kapoeta thin sections I had from the King Collection. He was beside himself as he was on a budget and yet he wanted to buy more than just one of them. He held one of them up and referring to the specimen being a Howardite, and said almost in amazement 'This one slide holds a complete rock collection on it!' As I recall, he settled on buying 3 of the them. Normally I leave after making a sale to someone glad that I made some money. But I left that day with the pride swelling in my heart that I could bring something special to Richard, with all his experience and expertise, that he genuinely appreciated. His smile beaming out from under his eye loupe, while examinating a new meteorite someone just handed to him (whether at Jim and Twink's party, or in the corner at one of Blood's Auctions, or at one of the many dealer's rooms in Tucson) will be the image I will forever hold in my mind of him.”

Tucson 2002

Tucson 2002
Photo: Anne Black

During the Tucson Show of 2003, Geoff Notkin and Steve Arnold bestowed the Harvey Award on Richard and Dorothy for their many accomplishments.

Tucson 2003 – Harvey Awards

Tucson 2003 – Harvey Awards

But everything must come to an end in our World, books and lives are no exception. Sometimes that end comes abruptly and when least expected. Twink reminded us of that fact when she quoted Richard's own words in the Epilogue of ”Rocks from Space”:

”In late 1984, I gave a small iron meteorite to astronaut Dick Scobee in commemoration of his visit to the University of Arizona, where he had graduated in engineering. Scobee was scheduled to command the space shuttle early the next year. I suggested, half in jest, that he return the meteorite to its home in space on his next voyage. In a way, it would be a historic event - a meteorite returning to space! A few weeks later a letter arrived from Scobee. He thanked me for the meteorite, calling it a "nice little treasure" and assured me that he would, indeed, return it "at least temporarily to the environment from which it came." On January 28, 1986, the meteorite began its historic return journey but never made it home. Nor did the crew of seven. Their ship was the Challenger.”

Yesterday I received the following message from Dorothy:

”I just learned today that the Field Guide has received an award - or will receive, in October. From the Geoscience Information Society, the Mary B Ansari Best Reference Work Award. They want someone to accept it at a banquet in Portland, O. Richard and Larry would have been so pleased. So sad that we didn't learn about it earlier.”

Wherever he is now, I am sure Richard is smiling.

Yes, Richard you can smile and be proud of your accomplishments and of a life well-lived.

Anne M. Black
Vice-President of IMCA Inc.

Natural History Museum, Oxford – 2004

Natural History Museum, Oxford – 2004
Photo: Dorothy Norton

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