KINGSTON, R.I. — June 26, 2012 — Jim Norman was once just a kid from Perryville who loved to see Ernie Calverly dribble and shoot a basketball in Rodman Hall on what was then the Rhode Island State College campus.
He became the voice generations of Rams fans listened to when they couldn’t make it to Keaney Gymnasium or Meade Stadium to watch the exploits of players from Sly Williams and Tom Ehrhardt to Art Stephenson and Tom Garrick.
Norman was honored in May for his 34 years behind the microphone when he was inducted into the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame.
“When you’re honored by your peers, that’s special,” Norman said. “You don’t do it to be inducted into a hall of fame, but it’s kind of the crowning achievement to the whole process of my career.”
During his three-plus decades on the air, Norman called 1,286 consecutive football and men’s basketball games as a professional and saw many changes, as the station changed its frequency and call sign and the school became known as the University of Rhode Island. And even now, 60 years after he called his first game as a student broadcaster, the names, accomplishments and incredible games remain fresh in his memory.
The 77-year-old can tell you about the time in 1952 that Pat Abbruzzi rushed for 306 yards against New Hampshire. He’ll tell you that Steve Furness — who played nine years as a defensive end and defensive tackle for the famed Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s — had the longest NFL career of any former Ram. He’ll tell you about Tom Ehrhardt’s eight touchdown passes against Connecticut in 1985. He’ll tell you all about why Sly Williams was a better all-around player for URI than Lamar Odom, considering the eras in which they performed, and the night Garrick scored a school record 50 points.
His encyclopedic knowledge of Rams athletics came not only from his time at the microphone, but also from the 22 years he spent as the school’s sports information director. With little to no staff, it was Norman’s job alone to compile all the statistics and record all the victories in the athletic programs’ annals.
He spent his days and nights, weekdays and weekends putting together media guides and making sure the press had everything it needed. But when the whistle blew, listeners around the state were treated to the games through the eyes of the man who has probably seen more URI athletic contests than anyone alive.
Norman’s broadcasting career, which ended with his retirement in 1995, began his freshman year at URI in 1952, when he entered the student radio station studio in South Hall — which was later torn down to make room for the Carlotti administration building — and recorded a demo tape.
WHOE, as the station was then called, was looking for someone to broadcast games to the campus, and even a little beyond thanks to a jury-rigged antenna — a cable that ran out the window of the station and was strung along the tops of the trees around the quadrangle to boost the station’s signal.
“The wire was hooked into an old aircraft radio,” Norman said. “It seems a pilot who was landing at Quonset got WHOE on his radio for a few seconds. He reported it and later, in walked a Navy officer who told us it had to come down.”
Norman got the job ahead of a senior and he spent the next five years as an extremely busy undergraduate –studying Engineering, calling men’s basketball and football games, working as manager for the baseball team, serving as editor of the student newspaper, manager of the radio station, treasurer of the Student Senate and more.
He also spearheaded the station’s move from WHOE-AM –- an homage to the school’s agricultural roots — to WRIU-FM, the call sign still used today.
Upon graduation in 1957, Norman went on to serve 23 years of active and reserve duty in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, before retiring as a major in 1980. He also worked for WEAN-AM and WPJB-FM, then owned by The Providence Journal Co., from 1963-71.
When he returned to URI as a faculty member in 1961, he produced the first radio network for sports in state history, which aired Rams games, and he also worked for the University’s public relations division. In 1971, he was named the third sports information director in URI history, a post he held until 1993.
He has been inducted into five halls of fame, including the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame, the Words Unlimited Hall of Fame, the Providence Gridiron Hall of Fame and the University of Rhode Island Athletic Hall of Fame. The Meade Stadium press box is dedicated in his honor and, in 1995, he was named by The Providence Journal as one of Rhode Island’s “Top 40 Most Influential Persons in Sports for the Past 40 Years.”
Though he traveled to faraway places such as Hawaii, Milan, Italy and Frankfurt, Germany, and broadcast from many major athletic venues across the U.S., Norman has kept his roots firmly entrenched in the soils of South Kingstown.
He grew up on a farm in Perryville, the son of a school teacher and state police officer, and to this day he lives a mile from campus in Kingston with his wife Roberta, whom he met during his collegiate years.
Norman said he has a natural penchant for staying in one place as his parents did, and despite offers to move on to bigger things, such as CBS Radio in New York, he didn’t have a desire to leave. He had a daughter and couldn’t see his family living in the city.
“I thought about it,” he said, “but I decided I had a good job here. Things were going well. URI allowed me to broadcast games in addition to my regular job as sports information director. I was very lucky. I was in the right place at the right time, but I had to have the goods. If you don’t have the goods, you won’t stay a long time.”
URI Department of Communications & Marketing photo by Nora Lewis