A Life Chock-Full
January 24th, 2020
(published in The Daily Memphian)
(photo: Norman Blackley’s 1927 Chris-Craft, “Jr.”)
“You ought to meet Norman Blackley,” Ham said.
I met Norman Blackley the week of his 90th birthday. Last week, just before his 95th birthday, he died. His stories will live a lot longer because of all the lives he touched, and changed, and quite possibly saved.
My friend Ham Smythe III knows a good story and knows how to tell one – so when he tells me there’s somebody I ought to meet, I listen. There’s going to be something worth hearing.
There was indeed, and I wrote about what I heard then, and now again in memory of a quietly fascinating man.
A few days after Ham’s call, Willy Bearden and I visited with Norman Blackley in his kitchen. Willy and I are suckers for stories and that kitchen was chock-full.
Matter of fact, Norman built the kitchen. “Everything in here cost about 200 bucks,” he told us, “put it in myself. This was the garage. Needed a kitchen more than a garage.”
He has other garages behind the house. Like the one that holds the 1978 Lincoln Town Car he restored. Or the 1965 Chrysler New Yorker. Or the 1920-something Jordan he was working on. His 1955 Chevy’s not back there. It’s in a museum.
However, in another garage out back there’s a tank he built to float his 1927 Chris-Craft 14-footer. He was with his mother when she bought it in 1930 and he’s had it ever since. “Gotta keep it wet,” he explained, “the mahogany shouldn’t dry out.”
Norman has lived in the house on Walnut Grove just east of Highland since the 30’s, and rode a city bus to a county school – White Station – because they needed more students to keep the school open. The woman next door to White Station had horses and she’d let the kids exercise them after school. One afternoon, Norman and some friends rode the horses south on Perkins to Park but had to turn around. Everything south of there was under water from the 1937 flood.
Norman went to the Philippines during World War II, and was put in charge of all troop entertainment in the western Pacific at 19 because he could run and fix a projector. After the war, he got involved with Kiwanis. They were starting something called Little Kiwanis, mentoring at-risk boys without much support at home. He eventually ran that, too, because Norman is very good at fixing things.
“I don’t keep records, but people who do tell me 735 boys went through that program.” He continued, “They turned out pretty good,” then paused, adding quietly, “we only lost ten.”
Without Norman, that would be a bigger number.
A lot of them learned about the river and how things work from Norman, docking that Chris-Craft, helping him build his 42-foot houseboat from the hull up.
One of them designed a rudder system and started a company that put that system in boats up and down the Mississippi. Another got a music scholarship along with his twin brother with Norman’s help, then weathered the loss of his twin in a car accident – again with Norman’s help – and went on to become a key figure in NASA. There are many more.
When they widened the road in front of his house decades ago, the surveyor told him his front yard lined up with the 24th story of the Sterick Building downtown. Norman may have told me just then why the area’s called High Point.
We all know a Norman. If we’re fortunate, several. We should sit down with them, record them. They have much to tell before they go.
Tomorrow, there will be a memorial service for Norman – “Cap” to so many – at the Memphis Botanic Gardens. The place will be chock-full of stories. And gratitude.
I’m a Memphian, and thanks, Cap, for your time among us.
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