Norris Dryer

Norris Dryer died on Thursday, after several years of faring the unpredictable weather of one of the more dire forms of cancer. We should be thankful to the fates that they allowed him to witness Game 7 of one final World Series. Norris was a major baseball fan, once one of the most loyal fans at the Knoxville Smokies’ Bill Meyer Stadium.

The fact that he was a baseball fan might surprise those who knew him mainly through any of his three public personae. He was Knoxville’s foremost leader of the Green Party, its longtime chairman. He appears in the current ballot as the Green Party nominee for Congress. He ran two years ago, especially proud of the fact that, for the first time in history, his Green Party was listed on the ballot. He was never a contender the incumbent worried about, but he claimed he spent less per vote than other candidates. “The only difference between the Republican and Democratic Parties,” he once told me, “is how fast they fall to the feet of corporate America.”

He was until recently the longest-tenured violinist in the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, having first joined in 1967, before many of his colleagues were born. Seated at the far left of the stage, Norris was readily recognizable for lean figure and bald pate and a certain visible intensity that was his own.

He was for many years one of the most recognizable voices on regional public radio, a longtime announcer for WUOT known for his crisp intonation. He’s the only known person in history to have read the entirety of Cormac McCarthy’s Knoxville-based novel, Suttree, on the radio, 20-something years ago. The novel was a personal favorite of his.

Norris lived in a walkup apartment in the Old City and drove a yellow Volkswagen Thing. I’m pretty sure the only times I’ve seen a thing in our current century were when Norris was driving it. He was one of Knoxville’s characters most easily recognized from a distance. You didn’t even need your glasses.

He was one of our city’s more creative curmudgeons, and one of his notable pet peeves was that upon the renovation of Market Square, 10 years ago, the city restored and installed the historic City Hall bell, at some considerable expense, but did not bother to install any sort of plaque to tell people what it was and why it was there. People just stare at it and wonder, he said. All it offers is the name of a bell company in Baltimore and the date 1883. I agreed with Norris, and tried to look into the matter for him, on several occasions. In 2006, I wrote a column about the omission of the plaque. In years to come, I researched the bell’s background and volunteered some text for the purpose to the appropriate authorities. Eventually Norris and I learned that putting a little plaque on a brick and concrete pedestal is, when bureaucracy is involved, nearly impossible.

Norris never stopped asking me when that was going to happen. He was a man of persistent preoccupations. A quarter-century ago, he was frustrated that no one knew who Mulvaney Street was named for, and it was something he brought up frequently. To him, and to me, it was an intriguing mystery, enhanced by the fact that it formed the title of a famous memoir by poet Nikki Giovanni. The city, less charmed by that ancient mystery, chose to start calling it Hall of Fame Drive instead.

He had no family, but had many friends who appreciate his eccentricities. I last saw him about two months ago in Happy Holler, about suppertime on the back patio of Flats and Taps, and was startled at his appearance. For some months he had seemed to be getting better, but that evening he was thin and gaunt. I’ve rarely encountered anyone who looked like that outside of a hospital room. But his handshake was firm, and he defied a deadly illness he to enjoy a beer with friends on one more rare soft summer night. Those moments were important to him, and should be to us, too.

6 thoughts on “Norris Dryer

  1. theatrehugger

    I got to know Norris when I worked as a part-time announcer at WUOT when I was a student, back in the days when they allowed students with marginal knowledge of classical music and decent dictation grace the airwaves. My usual shift was two nights per week, 6p – 1a. There was a 2-hour time block from 11p to 1a that was often un-programmed, so the announcer on duty would choose what to play. As a music major, I had a pretty good repository of knowledge about music and enjoyed creatively programming this block, but on one occasion my homework load caused me to find one long piece of music, maybe a Bruckner symphony, to put in that block, so I could study with limited interruptions of switching out music. This did not go unnoticed by Norris, who called the station and chastised me for lazy programming.

    I’ll never forget the way we greeted each other, every time we saw each other, from my days at WUOT 25 years ago up until the last time I saw him during a KSO rehearsal at the Tennessee Theatre. My maiden name was Pryor, which conveniently rhymed with Dryer. I’d don a particularly deep southern drawl and say: “Well hello Mr. Draaaahhr,” to which he’d always respond, “Well hello Mz. Praaaahhr.”

    Rest in peace Norris, may you be surrounded by grand slam home runs, a purring German auto, and Fritz Kreisler for eternity.

  2. KPilarskiHall

    Very nice tribute Jack. Rikki and Norris often had their chemo treatments at the same time, and I loved sitting there listening to them chat politics and local news. I am sure they are lighting up the afterlife with some interesting conversation!

  3. Judith

    This is a great tribute to your friend who was also a friend to our community. Though many considered him to be eccentric, I saw him as an example of a person who truly knew who he was. His living up to his beliefs and convictions should be help up as an example to others. He will be missed.

  4. wesmorgan

    I first became acquainted with Norris, as many did, through his voice as an announcer on WUOT. And what I remember most warmly was his unabridged reading of Cormac McCarthy’s SUTTREE on the air. After finally meeting him in person I asked him if an audio recording had been made of that reading as none had been made commercially at the time. He told me that a recording was made and he thought that the University Library had possession of it—or perhaps WUOT. I tried to find it on multiple occasions without success. He also showed me proudly a personal letter from McCarthy giving him permission to do the radio reading. Over the years we would renew our conversation about both when we would run into each other on the street. I missed Norris’ voice when he left WUOT, and now I will miss the man.

    I think that both the recording and the letter would make splendid additions to Special Collections at the University of Tennessee Library if anyone could find a way to make that happen.

    Thank you Jack for your tribute.

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