(Pictured: Claire Murray, Lyric Theatre, Norman Houston and Lorraine Turner, NI Bureau. Texas 2019)
When a friend dies it is often the small things one misses, the details rather than the big picture.
In the days since Norman died many people, often those in public life whose work brought them into close contact with him in Washington DC, have rightly paid tribute and expressed sympathy online. The artist Colin Davidson, whose large-scale portraits hang so prominently in the Lyric Theatre, summed it up in his Twitter tribute writing of Norman’s “empathy, selflessness, decency, warmth, professionalism, loyalty, inclusivity, positivity, balance” as the qualities than made him “unique in this world.”
For me one of Norman’s greatest qualities was that he could make links and see connections that few others could so readily identify.
In the last twelve years of his working life thousands of people from different backgrounds benefitted from his work in the NI Bureau: politicians, academics, community groups, journalists, business representatives, the voluntary sector and especially the broader arts and cultural community. This reached a climax each St. Patrick’s Day. But all year Norman was making links with people, following up on the groups he had hosted, maintaining a deep interest in what difference he and his team had been able to make for people.
Every summer his interest in the wider future of this island, north and south, was renewed when the young people in the Washington Ireland programme came to the city to intern as part of that inspirational personal development scheme. When I spoke to Norman about the Washington Ireland Programme he was again making those links – developing the leaders of tomorrow today, shaping peace and prosperity, offering these students a model of leadership which was also service.
Norman left school at 17, studying for his degree at the Open University while working fulltime in the Northern Ireland Civil Service and told practically everyone he ever met that story, including those taking part in the Washington Ireland programme. I don’t believe the story was told to make the listener feel lucky or to evoke sympathy but because the values of the Washington Ireland Programme chimed so well with the essence of Norman – humility, respect, integrity.
I met Norman most often in the United States in my work as a Trustee of the Lyric Theatre. When he returned to Washington in 2007 to head up the NI Bureau he already was linking political progress here with economic and social development.
He was an early supporter of the campaign to build a new home for the Lyric repeatedly making the link between cultural confidence in Belfast and a thriving economy.
Norman reasoned that it helped attract US investors to Belfast, and later again US tourists, if they could see a vibrant nightlife with restaurants, bars, theatres and other cultural institutions. Something to do in the evening was as important as somewhere to work during the day.
When he returned to live in Belfast fulltime in early 2020 he ended up living close to me and coincidentally, not far from the Lyric Theatre. As the lockdown eased last Spring Norman, always a committed walker, took to the Lagan towpath with an enthusiasm unmatched in other walkers. Years of living in a city without such ready access to nature made him appreciate the Lagan. And Lisburn – as a target destination for his walks.
On Monday past, the day before he died, I wrote to Norman asking if he would consider take part in an online event for the Irish Association next month. There was no-one, it seemed to me, better placed to offer an analysis of broad US-UK as well as US-Irish relations at the start of a Biden Presidency. He’d already demonstrated his deep understanding of Biden’s potential for Northern Ireland in a BBC Radio Ulster podcast with Mark Carruthers last November.
Late on Monday evening the return email arrived, as chatty and informal in tone as Norman was in person. He said he would be happy to participate “but I am a year past my sell by date and I’ve no illusions about being that interesting.” Untrue of course, but there was Norman’s characteristic lack of pretence.
He went on to refer to a mutual friend he had often met in the course of his work and who he had spotted while out walking. Norman was reluctant to speak as he was often with someone but asked me to pass on the message “please assure him that the wee man in the ray bans and the woolly hat who keeps smiling at him is me.”
In that last email are the details I’ll miss Norman for most. His abiding interest in the progress of other people, his complete lack of pretence or overestimation of himself, his smile. The Irish Embassy in Washington in one of their online posts about Norman’s passing wrote “we seldom saw him without a smile or without smiling ourselves.”
Hundreds of people have lost a valued friend they hoped to see more of now he was living among us but the entire community has lost someone who spent years putting people in touch with each other, making links so that the quality of all our lives might be improved.
A version of this article first appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on 16 Jan 2021.