MONTICELLO — Gene Norton has a unique gift.
“People who spend time around him feel blessed,” says his mother, Betty Norton. “That’s a rare thing.”
When Gene was in a Little Rock hospital in 2008 recovering from a spinal injury, doctors and nurses didn’t want him to leave. “He asked one of his doctors one day when he could go home,” remembers Betty. “His doctor said, ‘Gene, you can’t go home. We’re not going to let you. You make us all feel too good!’”
Gene Norton is 46 years old and has special needs. He lives in Monticello with his parents, Marvin and Betty. Gene is confined to a wheelchair, the result of two spinal injuries, but the injuries haven’t crushed his spirit.
In fact, it is that spirit that will be recognized by Arkansas-Monticello Oct. 9 when Norton will become the 10th recipient of the UAM Spirit Award, given annually to an individual who best exemplifies the spirit of Boll Weevil and Cotton Blossom athletics. The award will be presented as part of the UAM Sports Hall of Fame induction banquet.
Gene and his parents are at every home basketball and volleyball game, seated in their front-row seats at Steelman Fieldhouse. Players, coaches and fans make it a point to stop for a handshake and a smile from Gene.
“He’s just one of those people who makes you feel better,” says Chris Ratcliff, UAM’s director of athletics. “He’s been through so much in his life, but he always has such a great attitude. And he is our biggest fan.”
The Nortons rarely miss a home game, and if they do, there had better be a good reason. “When it’s raining real hard, we have a hard time taking him because we’ll get soaked trying to get his wheelchair out of the van and into the gym,” says Betty. “One time we told him we couldn’t go and he said ‘But they’re counting on me to be there.’”
The Nortons began taking Gene to UAM athletic events in 2001, shortly after Mike Newell was named men’s basketball coach. Newell bought a house across the street from the Nortons and met Gene when he happened by to borrow a tool.
“He asked Gene if he liked basketball and of course Gene said he did,” remembers Betty. “Coach Newell gave him a schedule and a shirt and told him that all three of us could come to the games and sit in seats he would provide. That’s how it started.”
Since then, Gene and his parents have become fixtures at Weevil and Blossom games. During that time, Gene has gotten to know players and coaches and they’ve gotten to know him.
In 2008, when Gene was in the hospital in Little Rock, Ratcliff, who was the women’s basketball coach at the time, took his team to Little Rock to see Gene on their way to the Gulf South Conference basketball tournament in Mississippi.
The out-of-the-way trip should have been an inconvenience, but the players loved it, crowding around Gene’s bed and leaving the attending doctors and nurses speechless.
“They had never seen anything like it,” says Betty.
UAM holds a special place in the Nortons’ heart. “Everyone out there, from the people who take up tickets to the coaches and players, have been wonderful to us,,” says Betty. “Why, Chancellor (Jack) Lassiter even offered to take us to the basketball tournament on the university bus.”
The Nortons, who have two other children — son Joey and daughter Terry Funderburg — spent 18 years taking Gene to hospitals and clinics trying to find the cause of his condition and received a variety of answers.
“I used to wish we could know what was really wrong with Gene, but our son, Joey, asked me why,” says Betty. “He said ‘Just look at the lives Gene has blessed.’”