Alfredisms: Norris, a Moustache and Shades of Gray

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Norris AlfredThe Polk Progress was a Nebraska treasure that ceased publication in late 1989 after 82 years as a weekly newspaper. From 1955 until its last issue, the editor and publisher was the late Norris Alfred. In its last few months, the Progress had 900 subscribers in 45 states. Alfred was a remarkable Nebraskan with an uncanny eye for connecting the present with the future. Prairie Fire has collaborated with the Alfred family, the University of Nebraska School of Journalism and the Nebraska State Historical Society to locate and archive many of Norris's writings. We are capitalizing on our good fortune to present many of the Norris Alfred writings to our readership. We believe that his observations are as fresh and relevant to today's world as they were when originally written.

By Brian Tyler

My late afternoon visit to the Polk Progress was at the invitation of the publisher, and I was not prepared for the multisensory assault of his office. The first wave was the strong smell of ink and solvent, followed by the clatter of a Linotype machine, and finally a visual of printer’s ink, gradually transforming the interior and its contents toward black. Equally stark was the December view across Polk’s Main Street through the front window. The John Deere Implement dealership and the IGA grocery store were closed and dark. Pickup trucks parked in front of the American Legion Club were muddy and utilitarian. Their rear bumpers defined 1971 with a Nebraska license (black lettering on a white background) and a bumper sticker that read “America—Love It or Leave It.” At 17 years of age, the world was only visible in black and white.

A single desk served many functions in the Progress office. At its chair sat the owner, publisher, writer and editor. On the desk that day was a sophomoric editorial submission containing a diatribe so poorly written and ill-conceived it would be worthy of today’s Fox News or “The Congressional Record.” In my hand was the following letter:

Dear Brian:

I changed my mind on your editorial. I had just given it a hurried scan before I committed myself to printing it. I took more time Sunday and decided you haven’t thought the editorial out very thoroughly. You need to do more thinking, more reading and you need more insight into the problems posed. The premise of your first paragraph won’t hold up. If you like, come in sometime and we’ll talk about it.

Sincerely,
Norris Alfred

At issue was my attempt to change the dress code at Polk High School, where I was a current student and president of the student council. Efforts to convince the school board of the need to change had been met with polite indifference. The time had come for a little civil disobedience and that came in the form of a moustache. For a 17 year old, the resolve to “go to the mat” over this issue was instantaneous. The actual appearance of a mustache on that 17 year old required agonizing weeks of staring at his reflection in the mirror. Eventually noticed by a school administrator, I was warned that I had to shave off my mustache or face “appropriate action by the school.” Having now started the conversation, I wrote and submitted an editorial to the local paper. Fortunately my words are lost to time, but the essence of the article was, “I’m right, you’re wrong, and if you don’t agree, then you are stupid.” I had typed it in black and white and thus it was so. Norris was more gifted in his written word and had taken the time to prepare for our meeting with this letter:

Put the problem on the basis of reason not rights. Talk about rational conduct, rational rules. There is an unreasonableness here. You are expected to shave off a moustache because it is disruptive. Ask—What is disruptive? A moustache or overt action on the part of students—slamming of books, throwing erasers, loud talk, etc.

This “rights” business has become a cliché of protesters. It turns more persons off, than on. What you want to do is influence public opinion. “Rights” are so adamant. There is a sense of “to hell with you I demand my rights” in this approach and you will fail to gain a sympathetic reading.

If you can ridicule the rule, this will help. Write about the quiet moustache—the studious moustache—the cheerful moustache—the thoughtful moustache. Write that you are not planning a drooping, discouraging moustache, but a more hopeful style. One in keeping with your years.

About clothes write—What is better, more considerate, to sit quietly in “loud” clothes, studying intently, or, to be loud in quiet clothes? Do you see how you can play around with this protest. Don’t be so damn serious. Have fun with it.

Ridicule is probably the most difficult of all writing and to be humorous and critical—satirical—is a more intelligent approach to the fallacies as they become apparent to you, than the “serious” method you are attempting which has a tendency to degenerate into mere rhetoric.

I’ve taken some time this early morning to put my thoughts down in black and white, since I was possibly too critical of you while talking yesterday. You have a good mind and are fortunate in also having two teachers interested in its development. I can recall only one teacher in my entire school career which included seven years in three colleges, who was an inspiration.

Show this to Mr. Brown and Ortgiesen and get their reaction.”

Sincerely,
Norris

The two individuals referenced in his final line were my history teacher, Harry Brown, and the school principal, Eugene Ortgiesen. Both were aware of my little protest and they, like Norris, embodied the notion that alternate viewpoints could and should be considered. Only in retrospect do I see and appreciate their guidance toward the revelation that the world was also visible in shades of gray.

I considered my cousin Bill Lock a kindred spirit. At the time he was a worldly and sophisticated sophomore at the University of Nebraska, and to this day, I look up to him. On a weekend visit, Bill reflected on my situation with the following poem:

On a senior once at Polk High,
The school-board a moustache did spy!
Said they with a fury,
Shave it off in a hurry,
Or out the school door you must fly!

Said the senior I don’t understand
Why I mustn’t grow hair if I can?
This minute eruption
Will cause school disruption
They replied with faces deadpan.

This kind of follicle eruption
Also brings vice and corruption
Besides cooties and lice
Aren’t really so nice,
So shave off your facial eruption

The senior took stock of his locks,
And realized the source of their shock.
Said the scoundrel with glee,
But sirs, don’t you see!
I’m as clean as the rest of the block!

But the school-board with faces quite mean,
Said the moustache was not to be seen.
The boy took up the blade,
But one last statement he made.
Gee, even my blue jeans are clean!

My story would be neat and orderly if I told you that I too wrote a witty and comical editorial that changed the minds of the school board toward my liking. That would be a very black-and-white outcome. In fact, the final chapter of this story is better painted in a shade of gray and reflects the actions of others more than my own. Having ignored warnings from the school administration to shave my moustache, I was given one “final” warning just prior to the Christmas break, mandating that if I returned in January with the moustache, I would face appropriate consequences. I did return sporting a moustache and, to my surprise, so did my history teacher and the school principal. I never faced my unspecified “appropriate consequences,” and the dress code was quietly dropped from the student handbook. That change occurred without a showdown or test of will, and the world did not end.

As a spectator in the national political debate, I find myself longing for a Norris Alfred editorial pondering the nuances of our current state of affairs. How delightful it would be to go to my mailbox and discover a new copy of the Polk Progress. As I did for many years, I would first turn to the editorial page before savoring the rest of the paper for my back-home fix. As I listen to those who govern, those who want to govern and the pundits that describe them both, I’m told I must choose either black or white. I recall Norris as an artist, whether the medium was pen, brush or typewriter. I suspect were he to describe either our current political choices or my mustache, he would paint from an artist’s palette containing many shades of gray.

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