FAMED WRITER NORM CLARKE HAS ALWAYS MADE US PROUD
Norm Clarke graduated from Terry High in 1960 and went away to Havre and Northern Montana College. He flunked out.
Years later when working as a young writer at the Associated Press in Cincinnati, Norm was homesick and considered heading home to Big Sky Country.
“One day I got a rectangular box in the mail,” he says. “When I opened it, I found a scroll that had so many names on it that it reached all the way to the floor. Hundreds of people from my hometown of Terry and surrounding counties had signed congratulatory notes, many urging me to “make us proud.”
Dropping out, he says, was no longer an option. And Norm, all these years later, is still making the home folks proud.
TRULY THE KING of Montana-made writers, Norm has lived in Las Vegas since 1999.
His rise to writing fame included stops in Cincinnati and Denver, where he covered major sports and news events, and ultimately landed in Vegas, where he was a “man-about-town” columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal for many years.
He retired. And then he unretired.
Norm is now a contributing columnist for Vegas Stats and Information Network (www.VSiN.com), the new venture started recently by longtime broadcaster Brent Musberger. He’s on TV each Thursday providing celebrity gossip and, despite some health issues, is going strong.
Recently on Twitter (@NormLasVegas) he responded to a query about the reasoning behind his return with “retirement was too difficult.”
“I’m not ready to hang up the spurs just yet,” he says.
A RECENT Sunday Conversation in these pages profiled Don Hass, the legendary “Iron Tumbleweed” from Glendive who became a football star at Montana State.
Don said Norm is the one who came up with the nickname.
But Norm has a little different story.
“I’m honored to have a small role in what’s remained one of the most colorful nicknames in American sports,” Norm says in an email. “I’d like to clear up how it happened.
“I was a sportswriter at the Helena Independent-Record in the mid-1960s when Don was rolling up record rushing yards with the Bobcats. The Associated Press bureau chief in Helena was a rising AP star named Wick Temple. We arrived in Helena about the same time (1964-65). Wick was 27 and frequently invited a handful of I-R staffers to join him for 5 p.m. cocktails at some of Helena’s finest saloons.
“On one of those evenings, Wick mentioned he was working on a story about Don Hass, who was one of the biggest stars of small colleges. I proudly interjected that I roomed with Don when I was staying with his relatives in Glendive during of summer of 1961. Don was a 15-year-old farm boy. I was 19, from nearby Terry, and working as a roofer in Glendive after a major hailstorm.
“Don was staying in town to participate in the Babe Ruth World Series, which Glendive was hosting for the first time. He was one of the Glendive area All-Stars.
“Wick questioned me about that area of eastern Montana, digging for details for his story on Don. I described it as wheat and cattle country with Badlands and prairie land. I told him I was from Prairie County, and joked that we had tumbling tumbleweeds that could knock a car off the road.
“A couple days later, Wick wrote, with a Bozeman dateline: “Donny Hass, the iron tumbleweed in the Montana State University offense, sets a Big Sky Conference rushing record in seven games, and says ‘The only reason I’m doing well is they let the tailback carry the ball a lot.’ ”
NORM BEGAN his writing career in 1963. After returning home from Northern Montana College he was working a grocery story when the editor of the hometown paper asked if could cover an upcoming tournament.
The pay was $5.
“It was,” Norm says, “the best day of my life. Because, in that moment, I realized I could do what I loved AND get paid for it.”
He worked in sports at the Miles City Star, the Helena Independent-Record and Billings Gazette, then in 1973 was hired by the AP in Cincinnati – just in time to cover the Big Red Machine’s baseball dynasty.
Sports was important to Norm. But not as important as the big story. That’s always been what excites him most.
By 1979 he was working for the AP in San Diego.
“One day I would be covering an earthquake, the next a San Diego Chargers game,” he says. “I flew with President Richard Nixon from Tijuana, Mexico to Mexico City, where he was paying his last respects to the Shah of Iran, who was dying of cancer.”
In 1982 he went to Hawaii for the first time – and the worst hurricane in 25 years hit.
“In the aftermath I saw surfers taking on mountainous waves, flattened jungles, a golf course carpeted with green coconuts, planes tipped on their noses at airports and car enveloped in sheet metal after being blown off a warehouse,” he said. “I was awestruck for days.”
NORM COVERED the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, then went to work in Denver for the Rocky Mountain News. Seven years later he broke the exclusive story that Denver was receiving a National League baseball franchise.
He also broke the news of the team name “Rockies,” after getting a tip at a Jimmy Buffett concert.
Norm and his familiar eye patch had become famous, but he also still had time for the folks back home.
In the mid-1990s I wrote about a Great Falls girl born with just one hand who was quite a softball player with a tremendous attitude. Her name was Shay Oberg. Later her family went to see a Rockies game in Denver, and Norm helped arrange a meeting with major-league pitcher Jim Abbott, who famously was also born with just one hand.
It’s really no surprise Montana remains so close to his heart. Norm’s heroes, he says, have always been cowboys.
“Late one night in Helena,” he recalls, “I saw a four or five cowboys walk into the 4Bs Restaurant and a handful of hecklers picked on the wrong guys. Chairs, tables and fists were flying.”
The cowboys were the great rodeo champion Benny Reynolds and a few buddies, and they dispatched with the hecklers real quick.
“It was awesome,” Norm said.
WHEN NORM moved to Las Vegas, the scoops kept coming. In January, 2004, he was the first to report Britney Spears had been married in a Las Vegas chapel.
“The marriage,” Norm says, “lasted 55 hours.”
For the last two decades he’s rubbed elbows with many celebrities.
“Las Vegas was the most breathtaking chapter of my life,” Norm says. “So many incredible major stories. Something that really meant a great deal to me was being named the Best Print Journalist by Review-Journal readers in 2013 and 2014 in the Best of Las Vegas issue.”
GORDIE SPEAR was the Miles City Star sports editor when Norm first started his career.
“He was one of my biggest role models,” Norm says. “I had lost my dad and my eye when I was around 10, and one of my first jobs was delivering the Star to Terry subscribers. I loved reading Gordie’s columns.”
Gordie played basketball and baseball at the University of Minnesota.
“Then World War II came along and he flew dive bombers in the Pacific,” Norm says. “He was one of most inspirational persons in my life, not just for the heroic things he did in his life but for how he treated people.”
Spoken like a true Montanan.
That’s most important to all of us, Norm. And don’t worry, you’ve always made the home folks proud.
Scott Mansch is Tribune Columnist and has been writing about sports and more in the Treasure State for nearly 35 years. He can be reached at 791-1481 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GFTrib_SMansch
TO BOOK NORM OR FOR INFORMATION TO HAVE NORM SPEAK AT YOUR CORPORATE EVENT PLEASE CLICK ON THE FOLLOWING LINK : www.brucemerrinscelebrityspeakers.com