Jim Norman, who passed on July 28 at 85, was fondly remembered this week as the “Voice of the Rams.”
Jim was much more than that, on the URI campus and off: Army veteran, speech professor, sports information director, and the voice of the Heritage Festival, to name a few.
But I, too, thought of his voice this week, whether it was on the other end of the phone or coming through the radio.
When I was the sports editor of The Times, Jim called me one Friday morning to complain about the lack of a URI football story in the paper. I told him that I had written one but had run out of space. Rhody was going through another horrid season, and the week before I had been called into the publisher’s office to explain to a league representative why we hadn’t been printing the bowling results from Old Mountain Lanes. Did I know, I was asked, how many people bowled. A lot? So that week bowling got in and football didn’t.
Jim was making his own strong case on the phone. “This town wouldn’t exist without the university,” he said.
It was a rare irate Jim Norman but the anger came from his love of URI, his alma mater turned employer.
Years later I would get another call from Jim, who had me pulled out of production to make sure I knew that Brendan Malone had surprisingly stepped down as URI basketball coach. Jim knew I was up against deadline and didn’t want me to get beat on the story. Jim’s job as SID was to publicize URI’s athletic achievements but it was also to take care of the media, and he did that superbly.
Things were much different then, in the 1980s, than they are now. After a basketball game at Keaney Gym, reporters would gather in Jim’s small office and wait for a mimeographed stat sheet. I still remember the smell. While we waited, we would grab a Coke from the cooler and a cookie made by Jim’s wife, Roberta.
It was unusual for the SID to also call the games, but Jim did both with grace.
Jim’s obituary noted that he did the play-by-play for 1,286 consecutive football and basketball games. And actually I did two of them with him. In 1988, Gavin Keefe and I were covering URI in the NCAA tournament and ran into Tim Gray, who then was a URI student broadcasting the games on WRIU. Tim was alone on this trip to Chapel Hill and wondered if I’d join him to do color, which I was happy to do.
The next season, Jim said to me, “I didn’t know you did radio.” Well, I didn’t, but Jim needed someone to do color for a couple of games while Don Kaull was away. How could I say no to the chance to work in the chair next to Jim?
I was nervous but came prepared. Jim took the cue from the station and was off and running. After a few minutes he introduced me and then got up and left the press table. I knew what that meant: It was all mine until he came back. The rest of the game went that way, although Jim didn’t leave again. He talked, I talked, he talked, I talked. We found some kind of rhythm.
Jim thanked me after my short two-game stint was over and complimented me on a job well done. That was Jim. As the university said in a press release, he was “a mentor and friend to student-athletes, journalism students wishing to break into broadcasting and athletics communication work and to sportswriters and sportscasters around the country.”
My old boss at The Times, Jim Campanini, said in a message to me: “Jim Norman was not only the voice of the Rams, but he was a great ambassador for the school and the student athletes. When I was a young reporter in South County, he was more than generous with his time and good heart to help me in my professional career. He was a class act all the way.”
On social media posts he was remembered as an all-around nice guy, a mentor, cheerful and gracious.
Former URI hoopster and employee Abu Bakr, who also has done TV color commentary, posted on Twitter: “The college basketball world has lost a giant, an original face and voice for the Rams. … His perfect and melodious voice were the highlights of Rams’ radio broadcasts. He was a gentleman and always a pleasure to talk to about Rhody BBall history.”
With all those games called and press releases typed, there was little that Jim didn’t recall about URI’s sports history. When sportswriters in recent years reported that the football team would be playing under lights for the first time ever, a long-retired Norman placed phone calls. Turned out for one game many years ago they had brought in temporary lights for a night game. It was still important to Jim that we got it right.
(Jim was just as likely to call the local paper with some long-ago tidbit about Perryville, where he grew up.).
Jim WAS URI, as one Facebook post said. But he was also a townie. He graduated from South Kingstown High School, first broadcast games from Fagan Hall in Peace Dale, and was a long-time member of Peace Dale Congregational Church.
Jim also lent his voice to the Heritage Festival. For a couple of decades, from his perch high above Marina Park, Jim would basically do play by play of the festival. Almost non-stop, he’d tell festival-goers about the lobster available under the tent, the rides for the kids, and to make sure you bought a raffle ticket. And for the lucky dozens, you might hear, “Welcome to the festival, Tim and Betty Cotter,” as you walked in.
My guess is Jim has now been given the duty by St. Peter of announcing the arrivals at the Pearly Gates.