One thing you cannot say about Scott “Stormin'” Norman is that he is shy or unassuming. As I walk into the Niles, Illinois, public library he is standing at one end of the meeting room in bright orange pants and a T-shirt. He is like a shocking orange ray of sunlight that has, somehow, gotten trapped in a windowless conference room in a suburban public library. He is also six-foot, five-inches tall and has a loud, booming voice.
“Jesus,” I say as I walk into the room,” did you actually grow taller since college?”
Yes, I knew Scott back in the days when we were both Media Communications students at Webster University in St. Louis. Scott was one of the first guys I met there, actually. He lived on the all-guys first floor of the “modern” dorms. I was up on the co-ed third floor. He stood out then just because of his height, huge and easy smile and loud manner if he was, at that time anyway, just a little bit less orange.
It has been about 17 years since I last saw him. I spent a lot of time hanging out with “Norman” (as he was known then) back in my college days. He was a partier back then. I guess I didn’t realize just how much he was partying.
These days the Halloween season is the prime money-making season for Scott. A few years back someone taught him how to carve pumpkins. By “carving” a pumpkin I am not talking about creating triangles for the eyes and mouth and carving a jagged hole for the mouth. Scott creates works of art. He takes photos and sketches, peels back layers of the outer skin of the pumpkin, and creates images unlike most you see people carving when it comes to Jack-O-Lanterns. He then places them atop halogen lamps and, when lit, the images come to vibrant life in bright orange and yellow.
He tours now. He literally lives out of the back of a van and tours around Illinois and neighboring states putting on pumpkin carving demonstrations. Adults and kids alike love him. He is entertaining as hell as he sits at a table, wielding a knife and, this particular night, carving the image of Paul McCartney into the side of an orange gourd.
“I started out by wood carving,” he tells the captivated audience, as pieces of pumpkin pry loose from the fruit. “Then I had someone, at a wood carving demonstration, ask me why I didn’t carve pumpkins. I thought it was a good idea and I found someone to teach me.”
When he is asked why he decided to call himself the “Picasso” of Pumpkin carving he gets that smart-Alec look I remember from our days at school.
“Well, you want something that has that ‘P’ sound,” he says. “I could have picked some other artist, but the audience wouldn’t know who that is. And, no, I didn’t pick it because I like to do art where I put the nose on the back of the pumpkin and the eyes on either side.”
Of course, back in college this was not the career path he had in mind. There were not times as we sat in film classes or I watched him behind the camera directing student films, that he said to me, “Bryan, I hope to take all of these classes so I can eventually carve pumpkins in public libraries.”
No, the Scott Norman I knew back then had desires to direct documentaries. He was a fan of Ken Burns, the seminal documentary filmmaker who has brought the world things like The Civil War and Baseball. Scott also had ideas for directing fictional movies as well. I remember one particular evening when he told me his entire vision for a series of movies based on the Marvel comics super-hero team The X-Men.
“I actually did direct some documentaries,” he tells me after the pumpkin carving show at a local coffee joint. He has changed out of his orange clothes, but he is no less a character as he teases and pokes fun at the women behind the counter serving drinks and pastries to late-night snackers. “I directed some documentaries about Native American dancing. Then I met my wife and we moved to Alaska. I got into stand-up comedy. I kept writing my poetry. I even started a business doing industrial cleaning.”
That is one thing about Scott Norman I do remember well. Whatever his loud and, sometimes, brusque outer-manner, inside he had the soul of a poet. I had to admit, even back in college, that he wrote damn fine poetry. It was one of the reasons I gave up trying to write poetry and focused on novels and other forms of creative writing. I recall once asking him to write a “modern epic poem.” I remember he started it and it was an excellent start, but I don’t think he ever finished it.
These days he has self-published two works of poetry. He has one called “Poetry for Men” that tackles issues near and dear to men. His second one, written by him and his own children, is “Poetry for Kids.” In addition to wandering the state getting paid to carve pumpkins, he also does readings from his two books.
“I did a lot of crazy things back in college,” he tells me. “I spent most of my time trying to drink myself to death. I finally got help thanks to my wife. Things haven’t been easy since then, but I wouldn’t trade being sober for how I was.”
Scott has since moved back to his home town of Peoria, Illinois. He does what he can to support his wife and his children. He also takes care of his mother. It isn’t always easy, as he says, but he seems strangely calmer and more content.
Does he ever miss doing the stand up comedy? For a time he was “Scott the Alaskan” and was doing some brisk business in Alaska playing at local shows. He even opened for Sarah Palin back when Palin was first running for governor. Palin was a neighbor and, in his opinion, a friend.
“Yes, I would love to do that again,” he tells me as he sips coffee. “I loved going up there and then finding people in the audience and having fun with them. I love listening to people and I think the comedy comes from hearing other people talk because other people’s lives are hilarious.”
Whatever you may think about him, his life or his politics, there is no denying that Scott is an entertainer. He holds the room captive for a solid hour as he discusses carving a pumpkin. He tells jokes. He gets the kids in the room involved. He asks questions. All the while he also carefully carves the image into the surface of the pumpkin. He’s like an orange Pied Piper and he holds the attention of everyone in his hands. Even I have to admit I am captivated by his technique. When the lights are dimmed, the pumpkin placed on a halogen light, and the image of Paul McCartney appears, even I make an “ahhh” noise.
These days Scott spends a lot of time on social network sites like Facebook reconnecting with friends and relatives. He posts his poetry there and solicits comments and opinion. He’s done pumpkin carving and wood carving demonstrations across Illinois, Wisconsin and into Indiana. He has done commissioned work for local businesses, for television news programs and local sports teams.
“I think social media like Facebook is a great way to stay in touch and using the chat feature is great for a guy like me who stays up too late,” he tells me as he sips more coffee and the coffee shop starts to close down. “However, I still feel that there’s something to be said for phone calls. I think calling someone and letting them know you remember them is one of the best compliments you can give them.”
I know he is directing this, at least in part, to me. I am notorious for not answering my phone or not calling people back. I tend to hate telephones.
As we talk we talk about many things. I begin to realize that the world of “entertainment” takes many forms. There are probably more men and women like Scott than there are big stars in big movies. These are people scratching out a living by entertaining people using whatever skills they have. They need to entertain because they feel that by entertaining people, they can bring smiles to faces. They make kids laugh. They make adults blush. They leave their audiences, whatever the size, feeling special and like they have witnessed something unique. They don’t care about politics or religion because they feel that the world has enough people screaming about those things. These are people who just want to entertain.
“I feel like it is my duty to try and bring some joy to people,” he tells me later as I am driving him back to his van where he will bed down for the night. “I try to avoid getting involved in political arguments or worrying about which side is saying what. I think it’s my job to diffuse things like that with humor and with good things.”
Then he smiles that big, large, smile that I remember so well from college.
“That’s a lot harder for me than it sounds,” he says. “But I think it’s worth trying.”
If it can be done by dressing in orange and carving pumpkins, then Scott “Stormin’ Norman is the guy to do it. Look for him. He’ll be the guy dressed in orange and wielding sharp implements.