by John Holler
SUN PRESS NEWSPAPERS
Dick Norman has been something of a fixture in the Wright County Courthouse since he arrived at the doors in Buffalo as young man back in 1983. It was a lifetime ago, which for Norman, has been a lifetime of community service. Just how long is 30 years on the same job? It needs a little perspective.
In 1983, the few people that owned cell phones had ones the size of World War II walkie-talkies. Ronald Reagan was starting his third year as president. M*A*S*H broke Nielsen ratings records (that still stand) for its series finale episode. Michael Jackson spent most of the year at No. 1 with his “Thriller” album and sparked a national fashion trend. Bud Grant still the coach of the Vikings. Star Wars sequel Return of the Jedi dominated the box office. Suffice it to say, it was a long time ago.
At the June 4 meeting of the Wright County Board, the commissioners bid farewell to Norman, who has served as county coordinator for the last 30 years. As the conduit between the county board and the various county departments, Norman’s job was to implement county policy, which he can laugh about now, but has been the source of friction over the years when he had to be the bearer of bad news.
“There was a retirement party for me Saturday night and, fortunately, my wife made sure we all had name tags,” Norman said with a chuckle. “I’ve been called a lot of different names over the years, so they came in handy.”
His decision to retire was one that he had mulled over for some time, but several commissioners were surprised when he tendered his 30-day notice in May. Norman knew that if he didn’t make the retirement decision now, it might not happen for some time.
“My wife and I have been talking about for about six months or so,” Norman said. “I felt it was the time of year to do it. If I was going to stay for the 2014 budget process, it likely wouldn’t have happened until the end of the year.”
When Norman came to Wright County from Duluth in 1983, the county had 240 employees. It currently has about 700 employees and one of Norman’s primary duties has been trying to oversee the county’s budgets during a period of unprecedented growth that witnessed the population of the county explode and his job was to make sure the county had the staffing level to provide services to county residents.
Making his job more difficult were the numerous recessions that hit the country, the State of Minnesota and Wright County in the late 1980s, early 1990s and again around the turn of the century — not to mention the gravest economic crisis since the Great Depression that the country is currently pulling itself out of.
“We’ve faced a lot of challenges over the years, especially when it came to the recession periods,” Norman said. “The state would deal with its shortfalls by reducing funding to counties and creating unfunded mandates. It was a challenge to say the least, but we have been able to weather those storms and I’m proud of the fact that, as bad as things got, we never had to lay off employees. It wasn’t always easy, but we did it.”
In many ways, Norman was the “man behind the curtain.” The county board is always the face of county government, but Norman was the person who was enlisted to implement the decisions the county board made — whether they were popular or unpopular among employees. As the county’s point man in union negotiations, things often got contentious, but Norman was always able to maintain a balance in his job, keep the peace and adapt.
“He was firm, but always fair,” said Commissioner Pat Sawatzke, who spent 22 years working closely with Norman. “When you’re county coordinator, part of your job is carrying out the wishes of the county board and that isn’t easy. Dick has a strong backbone, which is needed in that job. To be in that job for 30 years is a testament to him. Positions like county coordinators and city administrators often see a lot of turnover because of the direction the political wind blows. The fact he was able to work so well with so many different personalities that were on the county board over the last 30 years speaks to his ability.”
At Norman’s request, there wasn’t a formal retirement ceremony at a county board meeting as typically takes place when a longtime county employee retires. As the person who sets the board agenda, he just didn’t put it on. He wanted to remain the man behind the curtain. He will be missed by those who worked closely with him because he was an in-house historian. A lot of things happen over 30 years and, if something came up that was a first-time occurrence for a commissioner or department head, Norman’s phone would invariably ring. He was the go-to guy because there wasn’t much he hadn’t seen.
As he prepares to start on an exhaustive “honey-do” list from his wife, which often entails working just as hard in retirement as one did on the job, Norman said he intends to enjoy the fruits of his labor — travel, spend more time with his family, improve his golf game, that sort of thing. But, he leaves the county courthouse in Buffalo after 30 years aware that he made a positive difference for the residents of Wright County and content to put his efforts into getting overdue projects at home completed.
“I’ll enjoy getting more things done around home,” Norman said. “When I finally get the chance to put my feet up, I will probably realize how tired I am. I’m looking forward to that.”
Contact John Holler at [email protected]