CORNING, Ohio – “Thanks for giving us 32 years of your life.” That’s what one student wrote in a book presented to Janice “Jan” Norris when she retired from Southern Local Schools in 2000.
Richard Norris keeps that tribute to his wife close by – and is writing the next chapter in Jan’s story of giving to Southern Perry County students. He recently created a scholarship that honors her legacy and continues what they as a couple started 55 years ago.
“Jan and I came here with the stated agreement that we would stay for three or four years, and then we’d move on,” Richard recalls of their 1968 arrival in Southeast Ohio. “And with a stated purpose: to expand the students’ horizons and try to expose them to a bigger world, rich in experience and beauty. For some students growing up here, their eyes don’t reach anywhere near the horizon of what can be.”
The Janice E. Norris Memorial Scholarship, a fund within the Southern Perry County Academic Endowment Fund (SPCAEF) and created through the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio (FAO), will support the postsecondary educational pursuits of Southern Perry County students, who Jan and Richard both taught for 32 years.
“This scholarship is a way to honor what Jan had done for these kids and to help the kids,” Richard says. “And it goes back to broadening horizons. All education and all travel broaden. The need for the students as I knew them, and I think it’s still there, was to see the world in a bigger frame.”
He and Jan set out to see the world in a bigger frame when they left their native Northwest Ohio the day after graduating from the University of Toledo to pursue opportunities in Southeast Ohio – a place that captured Richard’s heart as a child.
“I fell in love with the trees and the land. I loved the forested areas and the wilderness,” Richard remembers of the weekend getaways his family occasionally took to Lake Hope State Park in Vinton County.
They both found jobs in Southern Perry County. Jan was a sixth-grade teacher at Corning Elementary School and Millcreek Middle School when the district consolidated decades later. Richard was a Spanish teacher – the first foreign language educator the district had in two years – at Miller High School.
Four years after arriving in Appalachian Ohio – about the time they had planned to move on – the couple started planting deeper roots here. In 1972, they purchased 40 acres outside Glouster, building a permanent home and a legacy in the field of horticulture.
In the late 1980s, Richard began crossbreeding daylilies, which led him and Jan to co-found Ashwood Garden Daylilies, with Richard creating new varieties of the flower guided by Jan’s eye for color and design. To date, Richard has brought more than 100 daylily cultivars to market, including the first daylily to change color over the course of a day and a daylily named in honor of Joe Burrow – the proceeds of which benefit food pantries in Perry, Athens, and Meigs counties. He currently has a daylily on the shortlist for the Stout Silver Medal, the highest award a cultivar and daylily can receive internationally.
“We just found a life that satisfied us,” Richard says. “I was in my element right here with this land. I think Jan was, too.”
While they were nurturing nature in Northern Athens County, they were also nurturing the young minds of Southern Perry County.
Over the course of their careers, Richard caught glimpses of Jan’s impact on the students, noting that she was “a brilliant woman and an extraordinary teacher.” But it was after Jan passed away in January 2022 that he saw in new ways the impact they both had made.
It was Jan’s hospice nurse, one of his former students, who brought back a distant but fond memory from Richard’s teaching career. The nurse’s sister was one of Richard’s former Spanish students and reconnected with him after hearing of Jan’s passing. During that conversation, the student – now an associate professor – recalled the day Richard pulled her out of another class to congratulate her on placing second in Southeast Ohio in third-year Spanish, a regionwide competition in which she scored higher than all but one native Spanish-speaking students.
“She told me that was the turning point in her life. She knew then that she could do it – in the broadest sense of the word. … I knew that (she) had done well in life but to feel as though I had an effect!” Richard says.
During a blood drive that spring at Miller High School, Richard encountered one of Jan’s former students who had transferred into his wife’s classroom due to bullying in another school. That former student told Richard how Jan’s concern for her well-being paved the way for the first time she could remember that she wasn’t bullied – and how it changed her life.
“I was touched as she was touched,” Richard says of the conversation. “I knew the skeleton of the story, but I had not seen the emotional impact.”
The two started discussing another element of the blood drive: to raise money for student scholarships, prompting Richard to ask how he could help. Jan’s former student replied, “Why don’t you establish a scholarship in Mrs. Norris’ name?” Shortly thereafter, Richard was meeting with former students Missy Jones of the SPCAEF board and Sherri Simons, director of outreach at FAO, to set up the scholarship in Jan’s memory.
He hopes the scholarship will help open the doors to postsecondary education – be it a two- or four-year degree or skilled workforce training – for students in need, much as it did for Jan, who benefited from a Toledo Teachers Association Scholarship. The scholarship – the only one given that year – paid for a full four years of college, allowing Jan to care for her grandmother, who was disabled from a stroke, and devote herself to her studies. Jan graduated from the University of Toledo with honors as one of the first two education majors enrolled in the university’s Honors College.
“Southern Local is such a stable community, so the majority of the students have at least one parent, maybe even a grandparent, that was Jan’s student,” Richard says. “I hope that when students receive this scholarship that it sparks a discussion of the kind of teacher that Jan was, that they remember who she was.”
Richard also hopes those memories and this scholarship will be a catalyst for others to support students in the community.
“Perhaps this will inspire somebody to do something parallel, or maybe a former student of mine or Jan’s might say, ‘I appreciated Mrs. Norris, and I’ll put $10 into the scholarship fund,’” Richard says. “Maybe we can start a little trend.”
To support the Janice E. Norris Memorial Scholarship, visit https://tinyurl.com/NorrisScholarship.