Kenneth Norris Jr., Leading Philanthropist, Dies at 66
Philanthropist Kenneth T. Norris Jr., whose family trust contributed more than $70 million to Southern California charities and institutions, including a renowned cancer research center at USC, died while boating at Lake Arrowhead, associates said Monday.
The 66-year-old Norris and his wife, Harlyne, were spending the weekend at their vacation home at the mountain lake when, shortly before noon Saturday, he took his motorboat on the lake to fly a kite, said Ron Barnes, executive director of the family’s Norris Foundation.
San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Stevens said Norris’ floating body was discovered about 12:15 p.m. by passing water-skiers. An autopsy is scheduled for today.
“I think he had a medical problem and fell into the lake,” said Tom Dewhirst, a San Bernardino County deputy coroner.
Norris was probably best known as the primary benefactor of the USC/Kenneth T. Norris Jr. Comprehensive Cancer Center and Hospital, one of the most highly esteemed cancer research and treatment facilities in the nation. Norris and his family’s Norris Foundation had contributed $9.5 million toward the center’s construction and later expansion. His charity continued the work of his parents, Eileen and Kenneth True Norris, who created the Norris Medical Library, the Eileen L. Norris Cinema Theatre and the Norris Dental Center, all at USC.
Norris served as a USC trustee from 1980 until 1985.
“Mr. Norris will be remembered both for his leadership as a longtime trustee and for his advancement of the educational and research mission of the university,” said USC President Steven B. Sample.
Friends and associates Monday spoke of the breadth of his interests and involvement.
When he stepped down in 1980 as head of the family-controlled Norris Industries, a Fortune 500 diversified manufacturer, he spent his retirement in renaissance fashion: socializing with presidents, conferring with astronomer Carl Sagan, dabbling as a Hollywood actor, even volunteering as a reserve in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Most recently, Norris--who with his wife of 23 years lived in Huntington Beach but was preparing to move into a new home on the Palos Verdes Peninsula--developed an interest in offshore ocean racing aboard a 43-foot speedboat.
But his greatest passion was philanthropy.
“His whole goal was to return what he had received to the community,” Barnes said.
When USC made plans for a cancer research center in 1978 in conjunction with Los Angeles County--and voters defeated a bond measure to finance it--his alma mater turned to him for help. The financial assistance he provided reflected his interest in science and medicine; the beneficiaries of his largess included Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles and Children’s Hospital of Orange County, the City of Hope, the Doheny Eye Institute, the Glaucoma Research Foundation, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and others. The Norris Foundation also endowed scholarships and underwrote research grants at USC and UCLA.
Norris’ foundation contributed $1.2 million to Caltech to make optical improvements at its observatory atop Palomar Mountain. He funded research at the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University and developed a friendship with Sagan.
Norris was keenly interested in the arts, with substantial gifts awarded to the Huntington Library, KCET public television and the 450-seat Norris Theater for the Performing Arts on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
In 1975--the same year he was named chairman and chief executive officer of the Long Beach-based Norris Industries--he volunteered as a reserve sheriff’s deputy.
“He didn’t feel he was utilizing his time properly and wanted to be of more benefit to the community,” said Dr. William Corey, his best friend since boyhood.
He retired from the reserve ranks in 1993 as a captain after serving in the department’s headquarters, offering his expertise in management systems and other technical projects.
His pay: $1 a year.
“He was a great guy who was dedicated to the community and loved the members of the department,” said Sheriff’s Lt. A.J. Geoffrion, who supervised him. Everyone knew of Norris’ wealth and stature, “but you’d never know it from him. He was a real pleasure to be around,” Geoffrion said.
Norris took his first job at 14, at the company his father founded in 1930.
He attended Stanford University in the late 1940s, where he lost an eye in a boxing match. He transferred to USC, earned varsity letters in crew and graduated in 1953 with a degree in industrial management.
He served as a fighter-interceptor controller with the Air Force in Germany from 1954-56, then returned to Norris Industries.
When his father died in 1972, Norris took over the company and oversaw its continued expansion. Among its subsidiaries were Thermador Waste King, Artistic Brass, Wiser Lock and Price Pfister; the conglomerate developed manufacturing plants worldwide.
Thanks in part to a relationship cultivated by his parents, Norris enjoyed a friendship with President Richard Nixon, and helped found the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda. His involvement in Republican Party politics led to friendships with Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush as well.
Among the honors he received in recent years were the Asa V. Call Achievement Award, which is the highest honor awarded by USC alumni, the American Cancer Society’s Man of the Year award and the National Conference of Christians and Jews’ humanitarian award.
Along the way, Norris made the top bid at a charity auction and got a bit role in “Little House on the Prairie.” Smitten by Hollywood, he produced the film “Too Scared to Scream” and appeared in several film and television productions, most recently “Frazier.”
But Norris’ legacy will probably be linked to the cancer center at USC, one of 27 in the United States, including UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, designated as such by the National Cancer Institute. The Norris center is one of only seven that also boast a separate hospital dedicated entirely to cancer treatment.
Dr. Judith Gasson, director of UCLA’s Jonsson cancer center, said the Norris center at USC is recognized by scientists for its epidemiology and cancer prevention research.
“Los Angeles is lucky to have two such cancer centers, and we can thank Mr. Norris for helping to create one of them,” Gasson said. “It’s an incredible legacy.”
In addition to his wife, Norris is survived by five children: Bradley Norris of Rancho Santa Fe, Kimberley Presley of Yreka, Dale Norris of Leucadia, Jim Martin of Soquel, and Lisa Hansen of Torrance, and eight grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending at Forest Lawn in Glendale. The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to the USC/Kenneth T. Norris Jr. Comprehensive Cancer Center and Hospital.