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Hail to the Chief – Jack Norris of the GBL


Jack Norris became ‘chief engineer’ of the Gananoque Boat Line after spending a lifetime at sea. Standing head and shoulders above everyone, his tough, gravelly voice commanded attention nearly everywhere he went. His quick wit and sense of humour also endeared him to many. He also loved posing for pictures as passengers departed the boats. Jack passed away on January 8, 2004.

 

“We’ve been kind of overlooked right from the beginning, particularly some of the worthy gentlemen who really had a tough time, like prisoners of war and lads who were ‘fished’ (sunk) two or three times.”

- Jack Norris, on finally receiving compensation for wartime service in 2000.

 

Six year old Jimmy Norris looked up as the taxi came to a stop just past the end of their sidewalk on Stuart Street. From his vantage point in the front yard, he watched and listened as the big man climbed out, glanced in his direction, winked his eye, then reached in the trunk for his large well-worn suitcase. Speaking to the driver, the man spoke in a gentle, deep tone, “... I dunno how long... ‘bout four weeks I guess, heh heh. Yeah, thanks. Take care now!” With that, the big mitt of a hand swung the door shut and tapped the top of the car. Turning, he started up the sidewalk, his frame complementing the pair of elm trees that flanked him as he walked toward the house.

“Well,” the voice boomed, “What have you got to say for yourself, young feller?” Staring straight up at the big, uniformed man with the peaked cap perfectly square on his head, Jimmy watched as that big hand reached out to pat his head. “Been a good boy or what, eh?”

“What could I say?” Jim Norris remarked, half a lifetime later. “Just who is this big man who keeps popping in and out of our house every so often?”

That big man was his father. A roving, deep sea sailor, home again on leave for a little while; home again to wife Jean and sons David, Ronald, Wayne and Jim, and daughter Mary. That big man was Chief Engineer John Joseph Norris, known affectionately as ‘Jack’ and then, eventually, to all who knew him: the Chief.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

No one remembers when a young Jack Norris heard his first steam whistle. It’s not recorded anywhere when a young boy from lower Queen Street in Kingston wandered away from his front yard to the dusty coal docks about three blocks away. The impact the steamships made on the impressionable youngster can only be imagined: flocks of seagulls crying overhead, feeding on scraps from a ship’s cook; the dank, fishy smell of the harbour; the shrill call of a steam whistle as another ship backed away from her slip, heading out – like it was calling out to him.

Kingston was on the threshold for becoming a major Great Lakes port in 1916, the year Jack was born. As many as fifty ‘lakers’ and ‘canallers’ would be moored alongside Kingston’s wharves, more often than not with a full load of western grain in their holds. When finally released from the icy grip of winter, these ships would be busy fitting out, taking on supplies, with heavy black smoke pouring up and out weathered funnels and the ever persistent hissing of their steam engines chugging to life. Jack was fascinated. The in’s and out’s of the shipping world and the mechanics of a steam engine were already in his bloodstream. Jack’s grandfather was Captain James Norris who piloted ships for the Montreal Transportation Company as well as Canada Steamship Lines, Keystone Lines, Quebec and Ontario Steamship Lines and Colonial Steamships. His father John worked on the Rideau Canal steamer SS Jeska and later, the passenger steamer Rapids Prince.

Signing aboard the SS Penetang as a deckhand and coal passer in 1932, 16 year old Jack Norris began his love affair with the sea. The work was long, hard and dirty, but Jack played his number 5 coal shovel like a fine-tuned banjo. The big kid from Queen Street had found his calling. Successive ships followed each season: the Acadian, Lennox, Lanark, Winnipeg and Selkirk. By 1938 he was 2nd engineer of the Canadian. It was home on leave that year when Jack met young Jean Kettle who popped in at the Norris house to invite the boys to a Valentine’s Day social.

“I tried to open the door,” Jean remembered, “but Jack was holding it at the other end.”

“How would you like to go steady with me?” teased the big voice behind the door.

“No!” Jean replied with finality. “But you can come to my party.”

They married soon after.

Fate dealt Jack a lucky hand when, in 1947, he was relieved for a short holiday from the lake freighter SS Emperor. On her return trip upbound through Lake Superior, the 525 foot freighter struck the Canoe Rocks, a pinnacle jutting up from the depths near Isle Royale. She hit with such force that her after end broke off immediately and sank into deep water, taking the engineers with it. They didn’t stand a chance. Such is the life of a sailor.

Passing exams for his First Class Steam Engineer Certificate, Norris could now work as a ‘Chief’ engineer and was soon in heavy demand. He would be addressed as ‘Chief’ from now on, out of respect. No exceptions. The captain was in command of the vessel but the chief ran his own engine room. Again, no exception. Sometimes, however, an overzealous mate could forget this sacred hierarchy and forget his place. It happened aboard the Shell oil tanker Emerillon somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. The First Mate had plumbing problems. He called the engine room. “Hello, Chief?...Yeah, I can’t get my toilet to work. There’s no water.”

“You’ll just have to wait,” Jack replied. “We’ve got a problem down here.”

“Chief! I want this fixed NOW! GOT IT?!” the First Mate slammed the phone down. Tempers could flare up at sea, especially on long voyages.

It is said that the Emerillon herself shuddered as the Chief came thundering up the stairway. Thundering up from the bowels of the ship, across the main deck and up several flights of stairs to the navigation officer’s quarters. The poor mate’s feet never touched the floor as the Chief explained – albeit slowly – while holding the younger man aloft, the proper way to speak to the chief engineer, whose rank parallels that of the captain at sea.

 

During wartime, Norris served in Canada’s Merchant Marine as chief engineer of the Fleetwood and later, the Tampico, trading up and down the American east coast. Later, he was involved in delivering lend-lease ‘Park ships’ to England. For his service he held the Atlantic Star, the Canadian Volunteer service Medal, the 1939-45 Star and the War Medal 1939-45. After the war he joined the Montreal Shipping Company and served on the Mont Alda, Montclair and Montroland trading between Canada and ports on the Mediterranean. In 1950 and for the next ten years Norris served aboard ships belonging to Imperial Oil.

In 1960 Jack signed aboard the Shell Oil tanker SS Emerillon as her chief engineer. With her children grown and on their own, wife Jean now joined fortunes with her husband at sea, for many voyages. The 710 foot three castled Emerillon displaced 41,825 tons and was the largest ship for that time ever built in Canada for a Canadian owner. Jean Norris remembers clearly the long voyages to Venezuela, England and to the Persian Gulf.

“We were asleep one night when I suddenly woke and said, ‘Jack, get your pants on.’ He said ‘What...?!’ and I said, ‘Get your pants on. The ship’s going to black out.’ Sure enough, all the power went out. Jack got up and soon traced the problem way out on the catwalk toward the bow. Well, the ship is rolling heavily and the sea is coming right over the bulwarks. Jack constructed a small shelter out there and soon fixed the problem. You see, I noticed our fan flickering on and off.” Jean also remembers the day in Liverpool, England when a young 21 year old boy named Gavin Duffy inquired about a job on the big ship. His mechanical background got him hired and he was soon apprenticed to ‘The Chief’. “Oh my, that poor boy would get sick when it got rough,” she laughed.”His mom was so worried before we left. I told her I’d look after him.”

I first met the Chief when I joined Gananoque Boat Line as a mate in 1975. He’d been there after ‘retiring’ from the sea shortly after his brother-in-law Hal McCarney became part owner of the company. Joining ranks with Captain Leland Earle, Charles and Peter Brooks, Wilf Bilow, Tim Adair, Chris and Neil McCarney Jr., Danny Covell, Peter Tingren, Marty Mangan Paul Nicholson and Gavin Duffy – the boy from England who followed his ‘adoptive parents’ to the Thousand Islands – I, too, became part of the GBL “elite”. We youngsters were apprenticed to the Chief. One particular afternoon, I was assisting him in connecting the piping for the bilge pump on the MV Thousand Islander. Now, back then, I knew as much about plumbing as I did about astrophysics. When I was asked to fetch a ‘union’ or some other fitting I probably made a mistake once or twice. The Chief would take whatever piece I mistakenly handed him, examine it and then calmly walk to the ship’s side and toss it into the ‘drink’.

Captain Marty Mangan who, today, is a St. Lawrence Seaway Pilot, remembers assisting the Chief during spring fit-out. “I was cleaning around the open engine room hatch on the T. I. II... my job was to gather up all the junk laying about. Around the hatch were the usual tools that you didn’t dare touch so I just took old papers, aluminum pieces and a newspaper that had a huge blob of grease on it. I gathered it all up and threw it out into the garbage. When I came back in, this huge hand came up from the open hatch, holding a bolt and started patting around. Up came the silver hard hat. ‘Did you see my grease paper?’ without thinking I said, ‘Was that your grease Chief? I threw it...’ And then the air turned blue!”

Betty O’Neill worked in GBL’s main office. “I’ll always remember that worn, white captain’s hat he always wore, covering his silver curls,” she said. “The Chief always dressed ‘to the nines’ standing head and shoulders above everybody.” During his many trips through the maze of islands, Jack took his turn at the wheel of the Thousand Islanders. One winter he studied and in the spring took his qualifying exams for his shipmaster’s certificate. Soon after, he left his engine room domain and took a position in the wheelhouse as one of GBL’s skippers.

“God help the sailboats that got in front of him,” remarked granddaughter Carla Hutcheson.

A ship receives her soul the moment she is christened. On January 8, 2004, as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth swung the traditional bottle of champagne toward the bow of the newest and largest luxury liner afloat, the Queen Mary 2, another maritime legend made his exit. Remembered forever will be that tough, gravelly voice that none of us will ever forget; quick to scold, quick to laugh and especially, quick to sing, almost anytime, anywhere: “I’m going to sit right down and write myself a letter...”

 

The Chief’s funeral was a celebration of his very colourful and extraordinary life. He reached the top of his game in both his career and family life. Father David Norris SJ gave a very moving eulogy of his father and their lives together and at times, apart. Family, friends and crew members past and present from Gananoque Boat Line shared their happiest and funniest moments with him. “He is the reason I went to sea. I loved those stories he shared with us,” said Mangan who is also a Master Mariner. “I’ll really miss him.” Sadly, missing from the service were Jack and Jean’s two sons Ronald and Wayne who predeceased him. Missing also was ‘adopted’ son Gavin Duffy who died tragically in a car accident several years ago.

“I was one of his adopted children, too,” said Betty O’Neill.

We all were.

By Brian Johnson,

Former GBL skipper Brian Johnson now pilots the Wolfe Islander III and Canadian Empress. A similar story first appeared in the Kingston Whig Standard titled: ‘Farewell to the Chief, a Kingston Master Mariner’ on January 30, 2004.  This is the 3rd of a series  called Fond Memories: GBL celebrities no longer with us.  They are presented to help celebrate the Gananoque Boat Lines 60th Anniversary.

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Comments

Bob Graham
Comment by: Bob Graham ( )
Left at: 5:07 PM Thursday, September 15, 2011
A fine tale, beautifully told, about one of those larger-than-life people who pop up now and then, and make their mark upon those who know them.

As always: well done, Captain Brian!
Jack Richmond
Comment by: Jack Richmond ( )
Left at: 6:54 PM Wednesday, April 18, 2012
I sailed with Jack on the Emerillon as an engineer under him and Alex Thorpe. He was a real gentleman and a first rate engineer who never got got too excited with problems as they developed, but methodically went ahead and fixed them. My wife Joan accompanied us to Venezuala a few times and we enjoyed Jeans company on those trips. We were sad to hear of Jacks passing, he was a good man.
Kally Portieous
Comment by: Kally Portieous
Left at: 4:59 AM Tuesday, April 18, 2017
That is such a treasure to have this history for our family. I am Mary Elizabeth's daughter, Kally and most of my favorite memories of my grandfather are tied up with GBL. I too worked on the boats and live in Gananoque, I am reminded of both my grandparents every time I drive by the water front.
Thank you so much for this wonderful article!
Bridget Doolan
Comment by: Bridget Doolan
Left at: 8:53 AM Wednesday, April 19, 2017
I so enjoyed this article and the photos are terrific!
I am a friend and former co-worker of Kally's and enjoyed hearing some of the stories of her grandfather and the GBL as told by Kally. I have also enjoyed being on the line a several times.
Thanks, for keeping this story alive.

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