Big Sur savant Jeff Norman left a prodigious legacy before dying at 54.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
One of the many things longtime Big Sur resident Jeff Norman left behind when he died on Oct. 31 was an antique tin box filled with a stack of obituary columns cut from local papers. A passionate chronicler of Big Sur’s colorful history, Norman viewed the obituary section as an essential aid in his decades-long quest to tell the stories of the region’s residents.
When it came time for Norman’s own obituary to be written, his friend Kathy MacKenzie became nervous. “I really agonized over his obituary,” she says. “It needed to be worthy of who he was.”
Norman was a man with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge about the region he lived in and loved, a passion that inspired a reverential respect for both Norman and an enhanced appreciation for the south coast in the local community.
His obituary is a dense 675-word document detailing an individual’s rich life. It mentions that Norman discovered a fern unknown in Monterey County atop the limestone fin of Pico Blanco Mountain – an accomplishment worthy of an expert botanist, but one Norman completed at age 15. It reveals that he was the youngest individual to be a lab technician at Hopkins Marine Lab. It notes the books that Norman wrote in collaboration with artist Kip Stewart titled Big Sur Observed and Images of America: Big Sur, a collection of historic photographs put in context by Norman’s descriptions.
As a historian, Norman knew that for some individuals their obituary column was the only place where their life story was told. Norman’s story will know no such fate – he has made such a lasting impression on the Big Sur community that the area’s residents will be recounting Norman’s story for generations to come. They will speak of his unorthodox attitude and his passion to truly understand and relate the importance of Big Sur to others.
His longtime friend Lloyd Jones has a plethora of Norman stories that relate Norman’s take on life. There was the time when Norman finally paid off his secluded cabin and 20 acre-plot called Alta Vista, which could be reached by a steep three-mile hike up from Highway 1, and threw a “mortgage-burning party.”
One unexpected complication for Norman occurred when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease about 25 years ago. Even though the ailment caused the pencil-thin Norman to sometime have trouble getting around, it didn’t seem to staunch the longtime Big Sur resident’s enthusiasm for learning and scouring around the rugged coastline. “He got ill early in life,” Jones says. “We who knew him saw that he allowed his spirit to prosper in spite of his physical impairment.”
Friends like Jones recall that even during the toughest of times Norman retained his quirky sense of humor. Just a month ago, Norman awoke in a haze of anaesthesia after undergoing heart surgery. When the surgeon asked his dazed patient “So you know why you are here?”, Norman kept his eyes closed and oinked twice.
Another longtime Big Sur resident who also has his share of Norman stories is Ken Wright. Wright, a former California Highway Patrol officer, remembers that the first time he met Norman – when he wrote him a ticket for picking up a hitchhiker by Bixby Creek. “He called me everything but a human being that day,” Wright says.
Even though their first meeting was contentious, Wright and Norman became good friends a couple years later. It was a common love of Big Sur that seemed to unite the two. “Jeff truly loved this community,” Wright says. “He was always coming from his heart.”
The feature Norman likely will be most remembered for was his sheer excitement at learning and imparting knowledge about Big Sur to others. MacKenzie remembers Norman telling her that some of the best times of his life occurred while driving along the Coast Ridge Road with Bill Post, a member of one of Big Sur’s most prominent homesteading families. There, with views of kelp scabbing the massive Pacific and the white bloom of yuccas exploding like lit matches along the land, Post would regale Norman with tales about Big Sur’s hardscrabble early settlers. “Jeff would just soak up the stories,” MacKenzie says.
Fittingly, Norman’s story won’t end with his obit: The Big Sur community is stockpiling all the inspired, unconventional and unforgettable anecdotes that radiated from Norman’s existence.
To contribute to Norman’s story, send a remembrance to firstname.lastname@example.org.