Larry Norris learned early in life what he was meant to do, and he did it.
For 38 years.
Norris retired last year after serving 10 years as the president of Fayetteville Technical Community College, where he spent his entire 38-year professional career.
“When I began teaching,” Norris says, “I felt I was destined for something bigger and greater. But after a couple of weeks, I realized Fayetteville Tech was where God wanted me to be.”
He had to travel a far piece to get there.
Growing up on a farm in the small Sampson County town of Garland, he was the second youngest of 11 children. His father had a large tobacco farm, and everyone in the family had plenty of work to do.
“My father had a strong work ethic,” Norris recalls, “and he did not believe in idle time. He always had tasks that needed to be done. I worked on the farm every day after school and all day in the summers, when I also hired out to a neighbor to work in his tobacco and earn some money.
“I didn’t have any time for sports or other extracurricular activities in high school. I was very interested in history, and I read a lot – mostly biographies and novels.
“Dad made it real clear to me very early that I was going to college. He died when I was a senior, and that gave me serious worry about how I would go to college since Dad had a long illness, and there was no money. I had to work my way through college.”
Norris attended Atlantic Christian for a year, but it was too expensive, so he transferred to Pembroke State University (now the University of North Carolina at Pembroke). Working weekends and summers, he majored in English, with minors in religion and philosophy.
He earned his Master of Arts at the University of Arkansas then returned to North Carolina to help take care of his mother. He took a job at what was then Fayetteville Technical Institute in 1969. He taught 26 hours – seven or eight courses – and also advised students.
“I planned to work a year,” Norris says, “and then get my doctorate. I had taught only a few days when I realized how much I enjoyed it. Most of the students were older and were working full- or part-time jobs. Many were single parents. They really wanted to learn; they had a desire to improve their livelihood.
“I looked at what I was doing as a form of ministry. I think you lead by example. I had a chance to help people make their lives better. A lot of them had struggled, and to see them trying to get an education … it was a motivation for me.”
Norris had a goal of receiving his doctorate before he was 30 years old, and he did it, earning a PhD in higher education at North Carolina State University with a minor in English.
“It was very difficult,” he remembers. “I had a young son, and it tore my heart out to be away from him. Initially, I rented a room in Raleigh, but I missed my son so much that I ended up driving back and forth. I spent time with him during the day and went to classes at night. I would get home very late. There was this one day I was just getting to Raleigh, when I heard the song, ‘Cats in the Cradle’ and I turned around and went back home. I skipped classes that night.”
Norris taught another year at FTCC before being selected as an associate dean, a non-teaching position that put him in charge of general education programs and accreditations. Next, he became the dean of instruction, essentially the chief academic officer of the school. He was the vice president for instruction and was named FTCC president in 1997.
“I had three goals: one, to try and build a sense of family within the staff, and that happened through communication and involving everyone in the decision-making process. Two, I wanted to build up the image of FTCC on the state and national levels so people would appreciate the job we do.”
To spread the word, Norris spoke everywhere he was asked. He became personally involved in the community, serving as the chairman of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce for 18 months. At the same time, he was president of the North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents. He spent considerable time working with the state legislature in an effort to find funding for the Community College System and to raise salaries for faculty and staff within the system.
“I am very shy and quiet by nature,” Norris explains, “but it wasn’t difficult to get out there like I did. You do what is required.
“My other goal was to expand and improve the facilities at Fayetteville Technical Community College. We did that, and we opened a new campus at Spring Lake.
“Nothing was done individually, though. It was a team effort.”
Norris feels strongly about the importance of community colleges and the strong role they play in educating people of all ages.
“I believe the community college system is essential to economic development,” he says, “and to helping people become thinking, caring, giving individuals. I think education is a window to the soul. People who read have a better appreciation for the needs of people; they get more involved.”
It would seem that a man with such passion for his career would find it difficult to retire.
“No, it wasn’t hard at all,” Norris says. “I enjoyed what I was doing, and now I’m enjoying not doing it. I’m having fun. I loved what I did, but I also love having time to do what I want to do.”
That includes reading an average of a book a day, becoming more involved in his church (First Presbyterian, where he is an ordained elder), restoring the grounds of his home and beachcombing.
“I teach Sunday School,” he says, “and I plan to go into the commissioned lay ministry. I grew up in a Christian home, and it has been a privilege to serve God. Now I have the time to serve Him in another way.
“I love teaching and I love to learn, but I’m not an egghead. I like to get outside; I ride a bike and walk my dogs (Chinese pugs Brownie and Norie).
“I always had fulfillment in my professional life,” Norris says. “Now, at the age of 62, I have found happiness in my personal life.”