Teacher, dramatist, pharmacist, grandfather. Born Feb. 27, 1930, in Winnipeg, died Feb. 21, 2013, in Winnipeg of suicide, aged 82.
When Norm was a young pharmacist, banter with local high-school kids helped him make a life-altering decision: At the age of 39, and with a young family, he sold his drugstore and enrolled in teachers’ college. Once Norm had made up his mind, well …
From that new beginning, Norm inspired thousands of students. Then, in 1970, he applied to a Drama in Education program in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, and with family in tow he launched into another life-changing chapter.
His drama studies would profoundly shape the rest of his career. With his new skills, he had a radical impact on teaching methodology. He began groundbreaking work with a group of mentally challenged people, using dramatic scenarios to “stretch” their minds. Norm recalled one memorable example when, in an improvised Old West scenario, a young man declined to join the buffalo hunt “because I’m allergic to buffalo,” a wonderfully insightful rationale.
Norm told that story in an acceptance speech for one of teaching’s highest honours, a Hilroy Fellowship. Subsequently, he also received the Royal Bank of Canada Local Hero Award and the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal.
After a series of worrisome symptoms resulted in a prostate cancer diagnosis, Norm began his fight against this affliction and subsequently co-founded the Winnipeg chapter of the Us TOO prostate cancer support group. The comfort and relief these groups have brought men is incalculable. In addition, Norm was instrumental in helping to realize the prostate cancer wing at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre, for which he received the Prostate Cancer Canada Network Founders Award.
Though Norm’s day planner was filled top to bottom and around the margins, he always had time for family and friends. He maximized every day. Wisdom with humour, “carpe diem” combined with a laugh or two, and a fierce will to “make it happen” personified Norm. He was a planner, an organizer and a master of the open-ended question. He had an inquisitive mind and was a lover of the arts.
He cared deeply for the many people he drew close to him. Having a heart filled with love, he never hesitated to share it with those around him. His extraordinary life truly made the world a better place.
In his last two years, Norm suffered tragic losses. His wife died suddenly, then his oldest friend. He tried to adjust: He sold his house and moved to a new apartment, but it wasn’t a good fit. He suffered with bouts of depression, and though his family and friends tried to help him, the troubles persisted.
On Feb. 2, Norm was hospitalized. Discharged on Feb. 9, he seemed to have rallied and begun to prepare for yet another chapter – a move to assisted living. But sadly, on Feb. 21, Norm left us. He had made up his mind.
William Backman was Norm’s friend.
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