John Norberg · 2016
It’s not just because of Norberg’s legacy at the Lafayette Journal & Courier, where he wrote a human- interest column for an astounding 42 years. Nor is it due only to his expertise about Purdue University’s history and Indiana’s deep connections to aviation and space exploration, which have been the focus of several of his seven books.
And it’s not merely the breadth of topics Norberg tackled with his award-winning journalistic endeavors, which ranged from investigative series that resulted in indictments of police officers to humor pieces taped on refrigerator doors. It’s the combination of all of that—plus his appeal as a public speaker—that endears him to Tippecanoe County residents, as well as to generations of newsroom colleagues.
“When you heard him on the phone or saw him scorching a keyboard, you knew you were in the presence of a master: a hard news reporter who could pry information out of the toughest source (or) a feature writer who could move you to tears or make you laugh out loud,” notes Kevin Cullen, a former Lafayette Journal & Courier staff member.
In 1971, during his first year in his first job in journalism, Norberg captured a first-place award in column writing from the Hoosier State Press Association. That was during his stint at the Brazil Times, where Norberg, in his early 20s, quickly found himself serving as editor and covering the police and schools beats, as well as writing features.
“Sometimes, I also delivered the newspaper,” he recalls. “Whatever it took to put out a newspaper and get it in the hands of readers, I did.”
In addition to being a wordsmith who idolized Ernest Hemingway since his youth, Norberg also has had a lifelong fascination with space exploration since he was captivated as a boy with the Sputnik satellite launch during the Cold War. Norberg became one of the few journalists granted one-on-one interviews with intensely private Neil Armstrong, a Purdue alumnus. He co-wrote the autobiography of another astronaut, Crown Point, Indiana, native Jerry Ross: Spacewalker: My Journey to Space and Faith as NASA’s Record-Setting Frequent Flier (2013).
Norberg put together that book, and continued writing his newspaper human interest column while serving as a Purdue University staff member for 13 years beginning in 2000. His other books include Wings of Their Dreams: Purdue in Flight (2003), which explores the links between the university and aviation that stretch back to a 1908 graduate who helped the Wright Brothers. These and other endeavors built Norberg’s reputation as a historian not only of Purdue, but of Tippecanoe County.
“I’ve always wanted to stay in Lafayette,” he says, “because I truly love the community.”
He’s not a native Hoosier, though. Norberg was born in 1948 in the Chicago area, where his mother, Margaret, was a teacher, and his father, John, was a business executive who had dreamed of being a sportscaster. Their son says he picked up his love of language from them, as well as from a grandfather who was a Methodist minister.
Norberg studied American literature at DePauw University. The multi-faceted job at the Brazil Times followed his graduation in 1970. Then came a long stint at the Lafayette Journal & Courier, where he made an immediate impact with the wide range and thoroughness of his work.
He chronicled the start of C-SPAN by Lafayette native Brian Lamb (an Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame member who has praised Norberg as invariably “topical, aware and fair”), traveled to Haiti for two series about the country’s dire poverty and served on a team that documented extensive police corruption during the mid-1970s. A grand jury issued more than 50 indictments, including one to a former judge.
Along the way, Norberg was mentored by another Hall of Fame member, the late Bob Kriebel, longtime city editor at the Journal & Courier. Norberg, in turn, served as a mentor for dozens of colleagues.
“As I pursued my career in journalism, I continually looked back to what John shared with me and taught me before making a decision,” wrote Patricia Meaghen-Walker, a former Journal & Courier colleague who became executive editor of the Bucks County (Pennsylvania) Courier Times. “He was that important.”
At the Journal & Courier, Norberg worked for a while with his future wife, Jeanne, who eventually became Purdue’s spokesperson. The Norbergs are the parents of Jenny, Matt and Kole. As they raised their young family, Norberg’s dedication to covering spot news was unwavering.
“When tragedy struck, John was out the door at the first alarm or squawk on the police radio,” Jeanne recalls. “The Hemingway in him came out, and the stories flowed from his keyboard and captured emotions, pathos and the human spirit.”
Norberg’s stack of more than 50 journalism awards includes several first-place honors in contests of the Associated Press Managing Editors and HSPA in categories ranging from deadline news to feature writing, column writing and community service.
The award-winning series about Haiti, which editors describe as “unforgettable,” included a story about an elderly woman dying by the side of a road as motorists looked the other way. Reader reaction was so powerful that the Journal & Courier published the series in a tab format and sent them to all Gannett newspapers.
During a 42-year period, his column occasionally ran as frequently as five or six days per week, although sometimes just once weekly. Here’s how Norberg looked at his relationship with his readers: “They were inviting me into their home to share part of their day with me. It always felt very personal.”
Malcolm Applegate, who served as publisher of the Journal & Courier in the 1980s during a management career that included stints at other newspapers, describes Norberg as the best columnist at any of them.
That, Applegate adds, was “substantiated by the local talk and conversations” the columns inspired.
— by Nelson Price, IJHF board member