City remembers ‘Nashua’s Own Music Man’

Tributes pour in for Steve Norris, career educator and band director

Courtesy photo Stephen Norris, the longtime Nashua music educator and band director who died Friday at 88, applauds a marching band during the 2017 Memorial Day parade, which he attended with Julie Norris, one of his daughters-in-law.

NASHUA – Approximately 30 years ago, Steve Norris, a career Nashua music educator and by then a veteran band and chorus director, made his way in to the psychiatric unit of a local hospital to visit a member of his chorus.

The child, in all likelihood, wasn’t a stellar vocalist, but pitch-perfect harmonies weren’t what concerned Norris that day. He’d learned that the student, on top of battling whatever issues landed him in the hospital to begin with, was craving cigarettes, one of the few things that brought him any measure of solace.

“They would allow him to smoke, but they wouldn’t supply cigarettes, and he had no friends or family to bring them to him,” Greg Norris, one of Steve Norris’s two sons, said in reference to the doctors and hospital staff.

While bringing a teenage psychiatric patient cigarettes may have had its risks, even 30 years ago, Norris didn’t think twice. All he knew was that a kid needed help.

The tale is typical of how Stephen C. Norris, who died Friday at age 88 after several months of declining health, approached what turned out to be a long, fruitful life, one rich not only in achievements, but in quiet, behind-the-scenes gestures that could reach even the toughest discipline problems.

Courtesy photo Steve and Stephanie Norris dance at their wedding in August 1964. Steve Norris, a longtime Nashua music teacher and band director, died Friday at age 88.

In addition to his son Greg, Norris is survived by his wife of nearly 54 years, Stephanie; his other son Geoffrey; four grandchildren; and a brother, William Norris.

A funeral service is scheduled for 1 p.m. today at St. Philip Greek Orthodox Church, 500 W. Hollis St., with burial to follow at Woodlawn Cemetery, 101 Kinsley St. A full obituary can be found at www.nashuatelegraph.com.

Born in Nashua to Greek immigrants at the start of the Great Depression, Norris graduated from Nashua High in 1948 and, “despite his humble beginnings, somehow found a way to get himself into, and (pay for), Boston University,” his sons said.

Norris taught music in Ashland schools for three years before returning to his alma mater, this time as a teacher. Norris, still in his 20s, would step into the shoes of a legend named Elmer “Pop” Wilson, who launched his career in 1914 by founding the original Nashua Boys Band.

Wilson, who was 85 when he died in 1971, was all set to retire in 1953, quite pleased that a talented former student named Steve Norris was interested in taking the reins.

Courtesy photo Stephen Norris, the longtime Nashua music teacher and band director who died Friday, poses with a vintage portrait of himself and the plaque dedicating the Nashua High School South music room to him in 2012.

So pleased was Wilson that when he learned Norris had a year left on his Ashland contract, Wilson agreed to put off retirement for another year, Norris’s sons said Tuesday, gathered at Geoff Norris’s Nashua home with their mom, Stephanie, and Geoff Norris’s wife, Julie and daughter Alexandra.

The transition, in 1955, launched a 43-year career that concluded with Norris’s retirement in 1998. It was noted at the time that Wilson and Norris were the only two Nashua High school band directors in its 84-year history.

Former Nashua educator Dan O’Donnell, who was a 10-year-old fourth-grader at the former James B. Crowley elementary school when he first met Norris, would become Norris’s successor. O’Donnell was among those who visited Norris as he lay in hospice care in his final days.

“I can never thank him enough for everything he has done for me over the years because he would never acknowledge it,” O’Donnell said.

He said visiting Norris made him realize that his mentor’s message “all these years, to me and everyone else, is that we should live our lives by always looking for the good in people … being kind to the most needy and never taking ourselves too seriously.”

Courtesy photo Former Nashua music teacher and band director Steve Norris, who died Friday at age 88, was photographed at Holman Stadium wearing the all-white band director uniform he wore in the 1950s and early 60s

When the school district dedicated the music rooms at Nashua High School South in Norris’s name in 2012, O’Donnell said Norris was “technically a music teacher, but was more of a life teacher.

“There are so many people he had such a positive impact on. He was like a second father to everybody,” O’Donnell said.

On Tuesday, Stephanie Norris recalled with a laugh a column from The Telegraph, possibly authored by the late editor Fred Dobens, which made a tongue-in-cheek reference to her wedding announcement.

The segment credited her with catching “one of Nashua’s most eligible bachelors” in the then-33-year-old Norris, who was his bride’s senior by roughly a dozen years.

“He was the cook — I was a waitress,” Stephanie Norris said Tuesday, referring to how she met her future husband when both worked at the Hampton Beach Casino restaurant in the summer of 1961. “I had to work at it. He wasn’t an easy catch,” she said, provoking laughs from her family members.

She recalls also the 10 or so summers they spent in a small apartment adjacent to Forbes, the landmark restaurant in Wells Beach, Maine, where Steve Norris worked as a cook, mainly for the breakfast crowd.

After work and on days off during July and most of August, Norris could be found on the porch amid reams of papers “working on band camp drills,” Stephanie Norris said.

Greg Norris remembers his father “picking up kids in the Salvation Army van” and driving them to church. “He’d take under his wing kids who had nothing,” he added.

During the holiday season, Norris would round up members of his choruses and bring them to nursing homes to entertain the residents.

His sons fondly remember their father pestering Nashua High football coaches, insisting whenever he had the chance that “nobody comes to football games to watch football – they come to watch the bands.”

When it came to discipline, Steve Norris had a style that was simple, but also quite effective, Geoff Norris said.

“He’d give you two choices,” he said, referring to anyone caught goofing off. “He’d say, ‘you can either stop'” whatever the student was doing wrong, “‘or you can get out.'”

As a child who grew up during the Great Depression, Steve Norris never shied away from work, often working “all kinds of jobs beyond teaching to make ends meet,” Geoff Norris said.

“Even when times were tight, he found a way for us to spend most summers at the beach,” he added, referring to Wells and then York Beach, where his father bought a home along Long Sands about 30 years ago.

While they knew their husband, father and grandfather took great pleasure not only in teaching music to thousands of students from grade school through high school, but also in helping out many of them behind the scenes, they said they didn’t realize how much impact he had on so many people until the tributes began popping up on social media.

“We were overwhelmed,” Geoff Norris said as the others nodded. “We’re so touched by it all,” he added, pointing out how many times someone referred to how his father “changed my life.”

Added Stephanie Norris, “I was really taken aback … all the nice things people said about him.”

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 594-1256, dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com or @Telegraph_DeanS.