AMERICA’S BEST SMALL-TOWN MAYOR, J. HARRY “CHIP” NORRIS III DIED IN LEONARDTOWN
BY KEN ROSSIGNOL
THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY
LEONARDTOWN, MD. J. Harry “Chip” Norris III, 77, died at his home, Darley Springs, located on the main street of the Town of Leonardtown.
As mayor of Leonardtown, Norris changed this 300-year-old port from being drabby and shabby to winning recognition and designations for being a quality place to live. Mayor J. Harry Norris III worked as mayor without a salary for most of his service, for championing the small town, which is the county seat of St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Late in his time as mayor, the town finally provided a salary.
Norris was a good leader and led a team of hard-working citizens, notably current Mayor Dan Burris, who became determined to turn around a town the county leaders were content to abandon in the mid-nineties. Most of the stores were boarded up with signs advertising them for lease or sale after the bypass was built to take traffic out of the town. Hookers and drug addicts were sleeping in a cardboard shack camp in the town square, and even the bars suffered from a lack of customers. Town leaders allowed the disintegration of the once-busy retail area.
St. Mary’s Commissioners voted in March of 1995 to build a new Judicial Palace on the county government campus on the edge of town. Norris joined former Delegate Oliver Guyther and Commissioners Chris Brugman and Larry Jarboe in organizing a group committed to showing there was ample parking in the town for the Courthouse functions into the 21st Century.
The pivotal point came when Senator Roy Dyson (D. St. Mary’s, Calvert) killed the St. Mary’s County bond bill that was to fund the new $23 million Judicial Palace on the last day of the General Assembly session in April of 1995.
The battle to Save the Courthouse led by Mayor Norris soon convinced Commissioner Frances Eagan to join Commissioners Brugman and Jarboe. The three conservative Republicans reversed the previous vote to follow the recommendations of the Space Needs Study. It infuriated Circuit Court Judge John Hanson Briscoe by changing the 1995 decision to build a new courthouse at Leonard Hall.
A new vote, opposed by Liberal Republicans Paul Chesser and Barbara Thompson, moved the county forward with renovating and expanding the 1901 courthouse.
Even though Judge Briscoe threw temper tantrums and dragged his feet, kicking and screaming with anger and cost-increasing technical objections with the construction process, the building was finally completed, due mainly to the affirmative actions taken by the new gunslinger County Administrator hired by the conservative majority.
St. Mary’s County Administrator John Kachmar oversaw the construction of a temporary courthouse and kicked the county public works director in the derriere to make progress with every step of construction and the expansion of the expanded Courthouse.
Ironically, the political crowd of true bigwigs who run the Walled City society formed together and hysterically named the new Courthouse for Judge Briscoe when, if there was true justice, the building should have been named for Chip Norris.
By profession, Chip Norris operated Main Street Appraisals with his daughter Kelly and performed bank appraisals of real estate. Jannette Norris, Chip’s wife, won multiple terms as the Treasurer of St. Mary’s County, serving until she retired in 2015. Jan’s mother, Becky Proffitt, was on the team, too, serving as a Town Council Member.
The success of the turn-around of the Town of Leonardtown is measured by a stroll through town and a short drive nearby to show the new elementary school, new housing, and a revitalized main street filled with visitors nearly every weekend for festivals and events.
Old bank buildings are being given a makeover, retail space is bustling with activity, and entrepreneurs like Sean Coogan, owner of Social Coffee, are bringing the old Duke Building back to life from decades of despair, and the Rex Theatre owners are producing live entertainment acts. All in all, there are now as many activities as in the nineteen twenties when Court Week would bring crowds to town as trials commenced.
With Jan’s death three years ago and his son’s death in 2022, when a St. Mary’s County transit bus driver let him off in the middle of a blinding rainstorm on the side of the busy Rt. 5 near Cedar Lane, Chip had sunk into a dreary time of his life.
When J. Harry “Jay” Norris IV got off the county government-operated transit bus, he was struck and killed by a car as he tried to cross the highway in the storm.
A recent news story about the failure of the St. Mary’s County Commissioners to provide any accountability for why Jay Norris was dumped on the roadside instead of being dropped at the usual bus stop at the front door of the Cedar Lane Apartments resulted in scores of friends sending Chip messages of support. Those messages left on Chip’s Facebook page, where he posted the news article from THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY, were a healing instrument for Chipper, who contracted Covid-19 at the time when his son’s funeral took place; Chip said he couldn’t attend but was able to have a moment in the funeral home alone and afterward to watch the services remotely.
Chip said he took a lot of comfort and solace from the support expressed as he blamed himself for Jay’s death, feeling that he had let Jan down and failed to protect Jay.
Chipper found so much support from his friends who embraced the news story about the lack of accountability for Jay’s death on the part of the St. Mary’s County government that his mood soon changed. Upon reflection, he admitted that he and Jan had successfully established their son Jay at a point in life where he could live independently, take public transportation to visit family, shop, and go to work. Chip admitted that Jay’s death was not his fault and wished there would soon be accountability on the part of the county government.
Finally, Chip began to rally again to the old take-charge Chip Norris, but his health, battered by Covid-19, continued to drain him.
On October 2, 2023, his friend and housekeeper, Valerie Bowles, went to awaken him and found he had passed away in his sleep.
His daughters, Kelly and Kristin, are making arrangements at the Mattingley-Gardiner Funeral home in Leonardtown, Md. When arrangements are completed, they will be added to this article.