Bill Norton Jr. ’38
defender of seals
This profile originally appeared in Bowdoin magazine, Vol. 74, No. 1, Fall 2002
Bill Norton is known as the defender of the 50 or 60 seals that sprawl on the rocks off shore from his house on the Pacific Ocean, some 100 miles north of San Francisco. "I used to run out of my house and yell at the abalone divers not to go in the water there because they'd disturb the seals," he says. "That only slowed them down, so I had the area converted into a marine reserve." This maneuver took political pressure from the Sea Ranch Association, the governing body of the community in which Bill lives. The Sea Ranch is a group of homes in a ten-mile extension of Highway One in coastal Sonoma County, California, designed to blend man-made structures with their natural setting, and to live lightly on the land. "I could do naught but be a newsman," in this case, he says.
Bill's activism runs in the family. His father, William, Sr., Class of 1905, spent his career in social work, pioneering "community chests," or "United Way, as they call such single money-raising campaigns for a variety of worthy organizations," Bill explains. "In fact, I just came across in my archives a December 1905 The Bowdoin Quill with an article in it by my father entitled 'The Social Settlement.'" Bill's late brother, James, was also an alumnus, Class of 1933.
Bill got his start "writing my way around South America just before The War. I interviewed a Chilean Nazi, which convinced me that the United States should join the Allies pronto!" The Navy and Marines "wouldn't have me," he says "because of bum eyes," so Bill spent three-and-a-half years of the war in the Army at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, editing the camp's publication, The Real McCoy.
Northern California drew Bill to its shores in 1946, where four times he acquired weekly newspapers, "built them up, and moved on to another." In that time, he also launched a trade paper, Northern California News.
"But, my wife Laura (who died in 1989) was the writer in the family," says Bill, "She authored three children's books published by Doubleday." Bill co-edited a journalism text called The Mass Media Book in 1972, "at a time when I was considering teaching college journalism."
"Collaboration," says Bill, "produced three children and seven grandchildren." Animals have always been part of the Norton family, too. "There was George, who has gone to pooch paradise," Bill says, "while Sparky, an elderly cat still hobbles about." Sparky requires a house sitter when Bill travels, which is often. "I'll spend the winter in Alamos, Mexico, an old colonial town 450 miles South of the Arizona border, where I've owned a house since 1953."
Apart from his interest in the seals that call his front yard home, Bill keeps himself busy with his travel, tennis twice weekly, helping with the Sea Ranch newspaper, and launching the local medical clinic. "I'm taking piano lessons again, too," he says, "and will do what I can with Braham's Intermezzo in A Minor at the next monthly session of the piano group."