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Biography: Owen Norris, Oxtales Theatre benefactor
 

Owen Norris was born November 24, 1954, the descendent of a long line of Norrises in Mississippi. Ancestor Edwin Pritchard Norris emigrated from England in 1838 at the age of 21, settling in Bolivar County. Beginning with a tract of roughly 225 fertile acres, through judicious planning and investment in a local mill Edwin expanded his holdings through the 1840s, becoming one of the most prosperous landowners in the region. He and his wife, Nora, had four children, two of whom perished in the Civil War as officers in "Bolivar's Greys."

Albert Sidney Norris, their sole surviving son, worked to help rebuild the family's holdings after the ravages of the war. Through the cooperative efforts of father and son, the mill was rebuilt. Cleveland, Mississippi gained importance as a railroad town on the Vicksburg-Memphis line, and Albert Sidney and wife Isabel moved there in 1871, hoping to partake in the prosperity. He established a small firm that brokered the transport of cotton to the North; the business thrived, and Albert Sidney invested the profits in more lands, some of which he rented to sharecroppers.

Albert Sidney and Isabel had three children: Edwin James, born in 1873; Ida Louise, born in 1875; and Henry, born 1878. While Henry enjoyed helping manage his father's business, Edwin took after his namesake, grandfather Edwin Pritchard, preferring the agrarian lifestyle to town life in Cleveland. After attending The Agricultural and Mechanical College of the State of Mississippi (now Mississippi State), in 1893 young Edwin returned to Bolivar County to manage the family's farm holdings, which encompassed more than 2,000 acres. Edwin was fascinated by plant genetics and experimented with different varieties of cotton; he began packaging and selling cotton seeds as a sideline business to his full-time farming activities.

Of Edwin's two children, Jonathan, born in 1903, inherited his father's interest in botany, as well as his scientific aptitude, and through his boyhood eagerly helped out with farming operations and plant experiments. The first in the family to attend a Northern University, Jonathan graduated from Yale from in 1924 and toured Europe; he gained an appreciation for the finer things in life and had a reputation as a rake. Jonathan convinced his father to invest more money and attention in the family's seed business, Norris Seed Company. The advice proved prophetic, for with the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent Depression, Edwin was forced to sell more than half of the family's lands at cut-rate prices. But the Norris Seed Company operation remained profitable through the 1930s, as Jonathan cut prices and invested heavily in community rebuilding projects throughout the state in an effort to maintain a customer base.

In 1927 Jonathan married Therese Lambert, a Parisian cabaret singer he'd met during his travels. Although the couple made a home in Mississippi, they traveled frequently and often hosted lavish parties at their New Orleans residence. Their only son, Robert, was eager to take over the family seed business, which had expanded to include soybean seed production; like his father, Robert attended Yale University, majoring in business and graduating magna cum laude. Upon his return to Cleveland, Robert worked steadfastly at expanding the company's holdings, acquiring a smaller competitor to become Norris and Pinegate Seed Company. In 1952, Robert married Adele Williamson, an Atlanta debutante; although their relationship was close, Robert was so involved in his work that they rarely attended social functions together. When Owen Norris was born, Robert spoke to his wife by telephone from the lab rather than accompany her to the hospital.

In 1956, when Owen was 2 and just 4 years after she married Robert, Adele Norris was diagnosed with breast cancer. Although Robert spared no expense on her medical treatment, the cancer continued to spread, and Adele died in 1958, leaving Owen to be raised by a succession of nannies while his increasingly withdrawn father continued to work long hours at the seed company. Owen's relationship with his paternal grandparents brightened his otherwise lonely existence; he frequently spent vacations and weekends at their New Orleans home, and loved to look through his grandmother's album of photos and mementoes from Europe.

At school, Owen was known as a bright child who was nonetheless prone to "acting out" by initiating schoolyard fights, talking back to and questioning teachers, and destroying school property. In one particularly memorable instance, as a sixth-grader Owen removed the hardback covers from all the school library's books on human sexuality and animal husbandry, then switched them, all in stealth during regular library hours. Such pranks were severely punished by Robert, who would frequently order Owen's caretakers to withhold meals and lock him in his room. By the age of 14, Owen had become so unruly that Robert sent him to boarding school – first at the St. Stanislaus College Prep, then at Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts. In both settings Owen continued to behave erratically, his occasional academic brilliance marred by truancy, inattention and outbursts of temper. Owen was admitted to Yale in the fall of 1974 largely due to his family legacy there, and preferred drama productions and the Skull and Bones society to his studies in business.

While at college, Owen cultivated his reputation as a lavish, eccentric entertainer, hosting masked costume balls, drinking in local taverns, organizing trips to nearby New York City to check out the scene at Studio 54, and presiding over annual pilgrimages to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where his doting grandparents allowed Owen and his retinue to take over their house. During the summer after his sophomore year, Owen flew to Europe against the wishes of his father, who had expected his son to come home and work at the seed company. Robert frequently rescinded Owen's allowance and even hired private detectives to spy on his activities in New Haven, all to no avail; in such situations Owen relied on his grandparents to persuade Robert to relent – and to fund his carousing in the meantime. Therese and Jonathan were convinced that Owen would finish sowing his wild oats and settle down to his job and marriage.

But marriage did not interest Owen, who was generally more interested in drinking and pharmacopoeia than in the scores of women who courted the rich bachelor. Although he indulged in a number of casual affairs throughout his college years, including a high-profile fling with fashion model Isabella, Owen shied away from long-term commitments, preferring instead a continually-changing succession of friends and lovers. With his interest in glam rock and eccentric fashion, rumors abounded that Owen was bisexual or gay – rumors Owen did nothing to dispel, saying, "Notoriety is good publicity."

Although his relationships were far from serious, from early adulthood Owen showed a deep commitment to supporting the arts. A Metropolitan Opera and New York City Ballet subscriber, Owen also frequented and funded off-Broadway theatre groups, modern string quartets, punk rock dives and film festivals – exhibiting a wide-ranging and eclectic taste. When he finally returned to the South in the summer of 1980, setting up residence in his now-deceased grandparents' New Orleans mansion, he immediately began contributing to local institutions such as the New Orleans Museum of Art and Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré.

It was through Owen's interest in the arts that Robert was finally able to entice his son back to the family business, offering to establish a cultural foundation to support Mississippi arts if his son would run it. Owen accepted and in 1993 began attending theatre and arts events throughout the state as the Norris and Pinegate Arts Foundation president. He began subsidizing Oxford's Oxtales Theatre in 1995 using both foundation money and his own funds, thereby becoming the group's major benefactor.

Although he continues to keep his primary residence in New Orleans, in 1998 Owen also took an apartment in Oxford, which he considered to be "the only civilized town in the state." Conducting foundation business from home offices in both locations, Owen also travels by helicopter to Cleveland for meetings and has begun learning more about the company's structure and operations. Robert, now 73, remains president and CEO, but plans to retire in the next five years; Owen, reconciled with his family's history and his own position in life, is then expected to take the reins.

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