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.