Where Wisecracks Seem Fairly Normal

Associated Press Writer

When he’s traveling on city business, Mayor Chris Koos carries around a $50 or $100 bill that he’ll hand to anyone who comes up with a joke he hasn’t heard about his central Illinois town, where “Welcome to Normal” signs are about geography, not a state of mind.

“I still have the money,” says Koos, who took the helm of this growing college town in 2003. “Sometimes when people make the same joke you’ve heard a thousand times, it gets old, but you try to play along.”

Around Normal and in neighboring Bloomington, folks say they’ve heard all the wisecracks about a city that legend has it once combined with another uniquely named southern Illinois town for a newspaper headline that read, “Normal Man Marries Oblong Woman.”


Few mind the good-natured jabs but say most are time-weary standbys that have grown pretty, well, normal over the years.

“What’s next to Normal, abnormal?” out-of-towners ask. “Is everything really normal in Normal? If you’re in Bloomington, is that as close to Normal as you can get?”

Still, even city leaders say they aren’t above using their hometown for a laugh. Retired City Manager David Anderson says that for 25 years, he often introduced himself at conferences by saying he was “the only Normal manager here. The rest of you are something other than normal.”

In truth, the town’s offbeat name has nothing to do with the traditional American definitions of “normal” that have fueled the wave of jokes.

When the town was launched in the early 1860s, it took its name from the local university founded a few years earlier, then called Illinois State Normal University. Derived from the French ecole normale, or “training college,” the label was commonly used into the 1960s to designate U.S. schools that churned out new teachers.

The nation’s only other Normal, in Alabama, also took its name from a university that sported the training college label. But Alabama’s Normal is only a postal designation for Alabama A&M; University, located in Huntsville, and has no local government or city structure, said campus spokesman Jerome Saintjones.


Around Illinois’ Normal, officials suspect their unique name may have had a hand in three decades of growth, helping to make McLean downstate’s fastest-growing county between 1990 and 2000. The population in Normal was 45,000.

“I can’t point to any one company or organization that located here because of the name, but I think it caught some attention because it’s unusual and that did some good,” Anderson said.

Mark Peterson, Normal’s current city manager, said the unique moniker often nets free exposure for the town when the national media tries to check the heartland’s pulse on elections and other issues.

“There are far worse names,” Peterson said. “I came here from the Kansas City area and lived near Peculiar, Mo. I’m sure they get the same sort of comments, but I’m glad we’re called Normal and not Peculiar.”

But even locals sometimes shy away from the town’s unusual name. Fewer than half a dozen businesses are listed in the phone book with Normal in their name, compared to dozens in neighboring Bloomington.

“Normal Psychiatry? If I was toying with names for that business I’d chuckle at the notion, then move on to something else,” Humphreys said.


Even townspeople, known as Normalites, sometimes say they’re from Bloomington when they’re out of town and asked where they live, Peterson said. “I think people are proud of their community,” he said. “Maybe they just feel Bloomington is more recognizable since it’s the older and larger of the communities. Or maybe they just don’t want to put up with the jokes.”