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March 5, 2011

Norma wasn't always a walk in the park


Daily Star

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Lots of local folks knew Norma Hutman much better than I did before she died a week ago in a house fire.

But I don't think I will ever forget her.

Norma, 76, certainly stood out. She was brilliant, acerbic, impressively educated, well-read, complex and _ to put it kindly _ more than a bit eccentric. She was an accomplished pilot, an author, a radio host, and to many of her former students, a cherished mentor.

Before meeting her, I just thought of Norma as "The Walker." No matter what the weather, there she would be, this tiny, frail-looking scarecrow of a woman with a pronounced limp, each step looking like it had to hurt.

A serious arthritic condition and the after-effects of a broken hip were no match for Norma's obsessive will. Nothing was going to keep her from her daily constitutionals _ not the cars that sometimes brushed against her or even hit her as she meandered into the street, not the wind, rain, snow or searing heat.

Not even nature's calls, which she was not always averse to answering where she pleased, to the consternation of residents and the opprobrium of the constabulary.

A professor emerita at Hartwick College, Dr. Hutman's extensive vocabulary included more than a few choice words rarely heard other than in the fo'c'sle of a tramp steamer.

I got a phone call years back from a sensitive woman I know well who had just been given what-for by Norma after nearly running her over. It was, she opined, not a pleasant experience.

I started to giggle.

"Don't let it worry you," I said. "Almost running over Norma Hutman is a cottage industry in Oneonta. You're not really a local citizen until you get cussed out by Norma."

Another woman I know who kindly offered to help Norma with her grocery bags outside a supermarket was told in terms that spared no invective that she desired no assistance whatsoever.

That was Norma, fiercely self-reliant, not worrying about bruising feelings and not caring who knew it.

I liked Norma. Maybe it was because she was one of a kind. Maybe it was because she was so smart, liked newspapers so much and wrote columns and letters to the editor for mine.

She had a radio show on WZOZ called "Issues Oneonta" that had a small but loyal audience each Sunday. I was on it once, and her questions and conversation couldn't have been more professional, respectful and informed.

The Oneonta Fire Department said the cause of the terrible fire in Norma's East End home may never be known and that she died of smoke inhalation.

This fascinating woman had no family to mourn her.

But Saturday at 10 a.m., Hartwick College is holding a memorial service for Norma in Shineman Chapel and an ensuing reception in Dewar Hall. My guess is that both venues will be packed with those who knew and appreciated what a remarkable woman she was.

I expect that just about everyone there could, if asked, easily recall a "Norma" story. She was an original, the type of person you don't ever forget … or ever should. Like so many others who knew her even a little bit, I'm going to miss her.

I'm pretty sure I'm also going to miss another Hartwick College professor, Tom Sears, who thankfully is still alive and kicking … at liberals.

Tom has decided to end his run as a Daily Star conservative columnist after a controversial and successful five-plus years.

If there was anything Tom wrote in all those years that I agreed with, it doesn't spring readily to mind, and I estimate that about 80 percent of all the complaints I've gotten about my newspaper over the last five years concerned Tom Sears.

But Tom was always true to his beliefs, had an enthusiastic following, and is a very nice man. Our new local conservative columnist is Chuck Pinkey, who for years has delighted in tweaking Democrats, my newspaper, my colleagues and me in his River Valley classified ads.

When I contacted him about first filling in for Tom Sears, and then possibly becoming his successor, Chuck was kind enough to visit me at The Daily Star. We talked about our children and our travels, and found that we could disagree agreeably about our political differences.

I'm pretty certain he and I will cancel out each others' votes in the next election, but I've discovered to my delight that I like Chuck Pinkey very much.

I'm confident _ whether you agree with his columns or not _ that you will, too.

Sam Pollak is the editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at spollak@thedailystar.com or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208.