SI Vault
Barbara Heilman
January 23, 1961
At an age when most men are nostalgic about school and apprehensive about paunches, Fred Norris is a college boy and a champion runner
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January 23, 1961

The Oldest Freshman

At an age when most men are nostalgic about school and apprehensive about paunches, Fred Norris is a college boy and a champion runner

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Thirty-nine is an age much favored by ladies of 50, people who believe that life begins at 40, and Jack Benny, but by and large an athlete does not expect it to mark the high point of his career. However, Distance Runner Fred Norris has pursued his career without much attention to probabilities. Last November, at 39, he finished second in the National AAU cross-country championship, and three weeks ago he won the Sugar Bowl 5,000-meter run. Norris did not even take up running until he was almost 27, but uncompromising training and an almost monomaniacal dedication have produced an athlete who is approaching 40 and may still be on his way up. In 1954 Norris did experience a qualm. "I gave over this hope of running—I thought I was too old. But I've come back to it." At that time he was a sprout of 33, mining coal in Tyldesley, England. It was not until he was a riper 38 that he took both the British national and the international cross-country championships, and not until he was 39 that he was offered an athletic scholarship and became a freshman in college.

Norris is one of the best long-distance runners in the world. He ran for Britain in the 1952 and 1956 Olympics, and missed Rome in 1960 only because he had injured his back lifting machinery in the mine. In 1959 an English paper said of him, "Since 1952 Norris has improved more than 30 English, British and World least 20 of them...this year." Two weeks after the national cross-country championship he won the international. Two weeks after that he won the British 10-mile track championship, setting the British, British Empire and British All-Comers records, and picking up the seven-, eight-, nine- and 10-mile English records along the way. He holds the two-hour track record—22 miles 1,610 yards 1 foot and 8 inches.

England is a country which takes its long-distance running seriously—a country where a field of more than 1,000 will start a cross-country race, throngs will turn out to watch it and champions are invited by the Queen to garden parties. It is in many respects a runner's country, but it cost Norris too much money to run there. The mine stopped his pay every day he was absent. With a salary of some $27 a week, the cost to him of running in the Empire Games or in the Olympics was crushing. With a wife and a 14-year-old son, it seemed impossible for him to continue. "I saw I had to change jobs, I had to change everything, if I wanted to get anywhere," Norris says. So he did.

He made the difficult decision to emigrate. In the late summer of 1960 he arrived in Lake Charles, La.; and in the early fall McNeese State College, which happens to be located in Lake Charles, offered him an athletic scholarship. Fred Norris accepted and was enrolled as a freshman. In four years, with a degree in elementary education, he hopes to go into coaching.

"I think it's going to work out real well," McNeese Track Coach Charlie Kuehn says enthusiastically. "I didn't realize how good he was [ Norris has so far won eight out of 10 races for McNeese], and the rest of the team has really come along nicely since he's been here. They never realized the work it takes to be a good distance runner. I feel the longer they stay with him the better they're going to be. He's like an old puppy dog with a batch of little puppies, the way they follow him around."

It all sounds good. Actually, however, it is going to take both guts and ingenuity as well as dedication to see the four years out. A $79-a-month scholarship covers the rent but does not even make a gesture toward food and clothing for a family of three. Everything depends on his wife Doris' working, but as Norris says, "there is nothing that would suit her here." She is a weaver, and there is no textile mill within 200 miles of Lake Charles. McNeese is looking for work for her, but so far has been unsuccessful. As it is, the four or five dollars she occasionally earns baby sitting is of no essential help, and they have had to broach their small savings. "She blames me," Norris said one evening in their Lake Charles apartment, when Doris was out of the room. "She says I knew it before she and the boy came over, that there's no work for her. I did know it." Norris himself is not in a position to take on work. At this point he cannot afford a letup in his training, and he is carrying a heavy academic schedule after 25 years out of the classroom.

"I think everybody's impressed with how he's doing with his schoolwork," Kuehn says. "When it's been 25 years since you did any studying, it isn't easy to take it up again. He's doing terrifically in history and geography, and in the English [the only subject Norris is failing] I'm sure he'll do real good."

Norris himself isn't sure he'll do real good. "It's not too bad now," he says, "but I hope I can do better. I shall have to spend more time on the studying part. It's the not being used to it. The English—you think you've been talking it good, but then you find you don't know the inside of it—verbs, adverbs, commas, complex sentences. I get so tired. While I was waiting for Doris and the boy to come over, I was living in the dorms. I was just starting my studies, and I didn't know what I was doing. I'd put on my running things and go out, and everything would be all right. Until the next day."

Running is everything to Norris, though it took him a long time to find it out. He served his apprenticeship and worked for some years in a machine shop, playing soccer with the shop team in his spare time. When he was 26 he realized how much he preferred the conditioning run to the soccer itself, and from that point he was lost (or found, depending on whether you are Doris or Fred). He had to give up the machine shop. "It was night work there, and night work doesn't fit in with training." He went into the mine, the Cleworth Hall Colliery, where his father had worked from the age of 12 and where his brother works today. "Ours is only a small mine. It's about 900 feet down." The walk from the shaft to the coal face was a matter of a mile and a half, about a 30-minute walk, the last half of it through a tunnel 3� feet high. This was negotiated twice daily in that duck-walk regarded as a punitive measure by the Army, and payment for the day's work was calculated from arrival at to departure from the coal face—working conditions that have improved hardly at all since George Orwell denounced them in 1937. Probably the Norris leg muscles were strengthened by this aspect of work in the mines and, miraculously, his lungs did not suffer from the coal dust. "It should have affected my running, but it never did, maybe because I never worried about it. When I did come out of the mine I was running straightaway. Many's the time I've come up dead tired and gone out and run 12 miles, and run it off."

The mine paid less than the machine shop, and a new shift he requested there, to fit his training schedule, paid less than the old. Since he has been running, Norris has moved steadily down the pay scale, shifting always to jobs that would allow him to train.

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