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The Passing of a Legend: Hank Norton Dies at 91

Hank Norton, 1927-2019
Hank Norton, 1927-2019

FERRUM, Va. -- On Wednesday, January 16, Ferrum College bid farewell to a Panther legend. Former football coach and director of athletics Hank Norton passed away at the age of 91.

"Ferrum College mourns the passing of Coach Norton, whose influence on our community and on generations of young athletes was monumental," said Ferrum College President David Johns. "I am grateful for the opportunity to have watched Panther football this past season with Hank and to hear his many stories of games and players through the years. We send our heartfelt condolences to Coach Norton's family."

Ferrum Junior College President, Dr. Ralph Arthur, hired Wilbert Henry Norton, Jr. in the spring of 1960 as the College's fourth head football coach. Within his first few seasons at the helm of the program, Norton transformed Ferrum into one of the top teams in the country. The Panthers joined the National Junior College Athletic Association in 1961, and Norton took the team to the 1965 and 1966 Shrine Bowl. Norton's Panthers won NJCAA national titles in 1965, 1968, 1974, and 1977.

Norton led Ferrum College into NCAA Division III athletics by the 1985-86 school year and became a member of the Dixie Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which is now the USA South. Panther football was immediately successful, with post-season playoff runs in 1987, 1988, 1989, and 1990. Under Norton's direction, the team also won NCAA South Region titles in 1988 and 1989.

Ferrum College enjoyed Norton's strengths as head football coach for 34 seasons until his retirement in 1993. More than 50 of his former players went on to play professional football, including National Football League All-Pro running back Chris Warren. Billy Wagner and Eric Owens, both baseball players at the College during Norton's coaching days, also went on to play major league baseball. In all, Norton coached 46 All-Americans while at Ferrum College. His teams won 15 NJCAA Region X titles and six Coastal Conference crowns.

During his career, Norton was named Coach of the Year three times by the NJCAA in 1965, 1968, and 1974. In 1979, Norton's name appeared on the Virginia Sports Wall of Fame. He is also a member of the Ferrum College Alumni Sports Hall of Fame, the University of Lynchburg Sports Hall of Fame, the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, and the National Junior College Athletic Association Football Hall of Fame.

Norton is a household name at Ferrum College and in the Ferrum area. The section of Virginia State Route 40 that stretches from Rocky Mount to the Ferrum, approximately 10 miles, is named in his honor. Norton was a dedicated leader, a fly-fisherman, and a genuinely caring coach who was tough but believed in his athletes.

"Coach Norton meant so much to so many people," explained Ferrum College's Director of Athletics Abe Naff, who was hired by Norton in 1981 as the assistant football and baseball coach. "It's hard to put into words the impact Coach Norton has had on Ferrum College, the Panther athletic program, and Franklin County, Virginia."

Norton attended Marshall University and Concord College.  He earned his bachelor's degree from Lynchburg College in 1951 and then served in the Army as a physical recondition instructor in medical field school, where he also played on the Army Black Knights football team from 1951-52.  Prior to his arrival at Ferrum College, Norton served as football, basketball, and track coach at Powhatan High School from 1954-59, where he also taught history and science. Norton obtained his master's degree in education from the University of Virginia in 1956. 

Norton is survived by his three adult children, Patty and her husband David Gunter, Will and his wife Jodie, Jack and his wife Kristi, 10 grandchildren and one great grandchild.

A memorial service will be held for Norton at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 2, in Vaughn Chapel on the Ferrum College campus, in Ferrum, Virginia.