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Virl Norton, 78, retired steeplejack raised horses in Almaden
 
   

At 60, Virl Norton, steeplejack, didn't have to prove to anyone that he was "tough as a boiled owl" -- his phrase. But in 1976, the bicentennial year for the United States, he entered the Great America Cross-Country Horse Race to prove it anyway.

He was so serious that he shunned conventional thinking and trained three big mules as his mounts -- Lord Fauntleroy (Leroy) and Lady Eloise for the race, Deacon as backup.

He was convinced that a thoroughbred-jackass crossbreed could withstand 3,200 miles of pounding better than an Arabian horse, the preferred entrant. Leroy was 16 hands high at the withers; that's 5 feet 4 inches, big for a horse, big for a mule. Eloise was almost as tall.

A generous man

When Mr. Norton arrived in Frankfort, N.Y., for the beginning of the race, his campsite neighbor was Anne Babbott, a young horsewoman from New Hampshire with just one horse as her entry. When Babbott's horse went lame just before the race started, Mr. Norton did the honorable thing: He offered his third mule to his young competitor.

Deacon was flown cross-country, and 99 days later Babbott was among the 51 of 102 starters to finish the race in Sacramento -- in 10th place.

In first place, after 315 hours in the saddle, mostly on Leroy's back, the rest on Eloise's, was Mr. Norton. He earned $25,000, and more -- respect for his strategy, his stamina and his sportsmanship.

That was typical for Virl Owen Norton, whose heart failed after a series of complications at age 78 Friday in the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Palo Alto, said his daughter Virlene Norton.

''He'd give the shirt off his back to a stranger," she said, recalling the time he took her as a girl into a busy restaurant with one harried waitress on duty.

''When someone said, 'Why don't they hire more people?' Dad jumped out of his chair, put on an apron and started filling coffee cups. . . . It turned bad feeling into a fun time. I've seen him do those kinds of things over and over."

Such a generous spirit did not mean Mr. Norton lost easily in barrel races, chariot races, ride-and-tie (runner-rider), run-ride-bike triathlons, 100-mile endurance horse races. He had the trophies and ribbons to prove he won his share, even though the victories came less frequently in recent years.

'I'm not going to lay down for anyone. Not you, not your grandma, not anyone," he said in 1981 after losing to a 9-year-old. "I always try to win, but I know how to lose, too. Little girls and ladies beat me all the time."

During his cross-country horse race, he flirted constantly with defeat, said his son Pierce, then 16, who drove his father's pickup and pulled the horse trailer.

Mr. Norton would skip a water stop to save time, then wait patiently for 15 minutes while children climbed on Leroy or Eloise to have their pictures taken. It was worth it, he said, because he was mindful that the youngsters in the Almaden Valley he'd trained to ride horses helped him raise the money to enter the race. He and Jerry Davis founded the California Gymkhana Association.

A rural upbringing

Mr. Norton could relate to the attraction of youngsters to horses. He was herding cows on his Shetland pony when he was 5 at his birthplace near Lovell, Wyo.

As a teen-ager, he earned money finding wild horses, breaking them and then selling them -- for $7.50, or $150.

As a tank gunner in World War II, he fought in the Battle of Bulge and suffered wounds that left him recuperating in an Army hospital in Auburn at the end of the war.

Mr. Norton's first marriage, to Dell Sorensen in 1947, produced three children and ended in divorce. His second wife, Eleanor Pierce, died of cancer in 1969, and four of his five children from that marriage survive. Daughter Eleanor Fay was killed in an accident in 1979.

Working as a steeplejack took Mr. Norton to the top of things from Mexico to Canada -- to paint a water tower, fix a flagpole. He and his son did a 106- foot smokestack when Mr. Norton was past 60. "He was nimble as a cat, didn't have a fear in his body," said Pierce Norton, now a technical support engineer.

As a "retiree" living in a trailer and sharing property on Harry Road in the Almaden Valley with 20 to 25 horses, Mr. Norton was up before dawn. Usually, he was the first to show up for coffee, on a horse or not, even before Big John's or later the Country Inn Cafe opened for business.

The incursion of people and homes into his Quicksilver territory troubled him. Forty years ago, when he first moved to the valley, it was "way out of town," he said in an interview several years ago.

''I miss the old days -- yes, you bet. Not so many damn people, fast cars, booze, dope. Just less of it then. It was less problematic then."

When Mr. Norton entered the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in December, he was still living alone in his little silver trailer, caring for his horses -- and Leroy.

He never made it back to his valley, but before he died, a friend promised Mr. Norton that the tough, old mule that won him the big prize -- now 25 -- would have a pasture the rest of his days.

BORN: Aug. 1, 1916, Lovell, Wyo.

DIED: Feb. 10, 1995, Palo Alto, Calif.

SURVIVED BY: Daughters, Karen Norton and Carolyn Bentley of Santa Rosa, Virlene Norton of Sandy, Idaho, and Paula Clark of Pleasant Grove, Utah; sons, David Norton of Salt Lake City, Pierce Norton of Morgan Hill, and Tony Norton of Idaho Falls, Idaho; sisters, Vivian Franklin of Sacramento and Aurelia Beddes of Lovell; brothers, Elwood and Earl, of Lovell; and six grandchildren.

Mack Lundstrom, Mercury News Staff Writer
February 14, 1995

Copyright 1995 San Jose Mercury News All rights reserved. Reproduced with
permission of the Mercury News. Any unauthorized reproduction is strictly
prohibited.

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