In Memoriam: Norton Ginsburg, 1921-2007

U of C Press Release
Chicago Tribune Obit

Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel
Rodfei Zedek, Chicago

Norton was born in 1921 on the North Side of Chicago, in the “Uptown” neighborhood. He always remembered the address of his home, 6100 North Winthrop Avenue. His father, Maurice, was born in Russia and came to the United States in his teens with a younger brother. His mother, Sarah, was born in Liverpool, England, and emigrated in her twenties. His parents attended the Agudath Achim Synagogue.
Norton was proud that his dad was a talented mechanic, a tool and dye maker who also did design work for the same company, Helmco, for many years. Norton was a devoted son who looked after his mother and spoke to her at least weekly. He was also a devoted brother to his elder sister Ethel and to their youngest sibling by several years, his brother, Gilbert. He was delighted to welcome Julius and Faith into the family, and kept up, with interest, with all his nieces and nephews and with their children. When Ethel passed away, he took over as the Chicago caregiver for his mother.
Norton had fond memories of student days at Pope School and Senn High School. Ever since he was a child, he showed an unusual interest in maps and in geography. He loved reading maps. From the time his sister Ethel went off to the University of Chicago, Norton dreamed of going there. He told me that it never occurred to him to go anywhere else. He was accepted there, with a scholarship, and entered at age sixteen. His interest in maps led him to study with Chauncey Harris and Robert Platt. In less than a dozen years, including a few years of military service, he acquired three degrees from the University of Chicago: his B.A., M.A., and PhD degrees. His creativity and charm were such that he was asked to assist professors in teaching, and then to join the distinguished faculty in the Department of Geography.
As a teacher, Norton made geography interesting to his students, constantly reminding them that the understanding and development of cities and of nations, and of their citizens, depends on appreciation of geographical features. He earned his doctorate by studying Asia, which, he said, was of prime importance because of its significant territory. He learned Chinese in order to discover the effect of topography on culture and economics.
Norton summarized for me his field of study by observing that it was his task to understand where cities are, why they are where they are, and what functions they perform. He observed that issues of urbanization—water supply, transportation—overlap, and that carefully studying one city can help the observer to understand other cities.
During World War Two he responded to the call to serve his country. He enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to the Marine Corps. He was further assigned to Japanese language school at the University of Colorado in order to prepare for counterintelligence work. Norton told me that at one time he knew Japanese quite well. He went to China with the Sixth Marine Division which, during the war, was occupying the city of Chin Gow in North China. Not surprisingly he specialized in map intelligence.
American troops had been assigned to a number of places in China which had been under Japanese domination. Norton was thus able to use both his Chinese and his Japanese. He used his language skills to good advantage, both in his counterintelligence work (trying to discover “why things were going on and where they were going on,” as he put it) and in more fun ways, too. He told me that Chin Gow had been a German colonial city with a thriving brewery before the Japanese took it over. Norton and his colleagues found Chinese citizens who had once worked in the brewery and reopened it and enjoyed the beer. Whenever Norton bought beer in subsequent years he would look for that label.
Norton returned from service to finish his doctorate and to begin his teaching career at Chicago. Early on, he taught at the University at New Delhi, India, and came to know Indian geography well. It was there that he met his good friend, George Heinz, who continued to visit Norton, religiously, through Norton’s last years of physical frailty. In those early years of his brilliant career, Norton also taught at the University of Hong Kong, where his knowledge of Japanese and Chinese came in handy in his research and impressed the community as a whole. He understood and admired the cultures of Asian countries, and was a keen observer of those nations, penning many essays about these lands and their people. He was an expert on the Chinese railroad.
At the University he assumed many roles with effectiveness and grace, whether as department head, dean, or editor, and the same was true in various professional and academic organizations. When renowned University of Chicago President Hutchins established a think tank in Santa Barbara, California, The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, Norton, an able scholar, teacher and administrator, was one of the first he thought of not only to offer insights and learning, but to serve as Dean of Senior Fellows. Norton was honored by his colleagues in many ways, including being elected to the presidency of the American Association of Geographers.
Norton was in his late Forties when he assumed the post in Santa Barbara while on hiatus from the University of Chicago. That move led him to the greatest blessing in his life. Another member of the think tank was Elizabeth Mann Borgese, who was, for several years, to edit, with Norton, the Ocean Yearbook, which literally catalogued everything to do with oceans. Diana, who had begun her career in early education, was staying for a while with Elizabeth Borgese, and was enjoying the sun on the beach in front of Elizabeth’s home. Norton walked by while visiting Leon Sager, the father of his friend Esther Altschul, and his wife Margaret, who were supporters of the Santa Barbara Center. He was, as they say, smitten by Diana’s beauty and intelligence, and they married a couple of years later, in 1973, returning to Chicago in 1974. Norton was most welcoming when Diana’s mother and her father visited. His relationship was cordial with each of them, as with Diana’s siblings, Sandy and Bob, and Malcolm and Ellen, and their families.
When his sons, Jeremy and Alexander came along, Norton rejoiced in their character and achievements. He was thrilled to become a father in his early Fifties. He was grateful for his sons and for Diana. I recall his joy and pride at the b’nai mitzvah ceremonies, and his bounce and smiles at the receptions that followed. Whenever I visited him at Montgomery Place, he filled me in with great detail about his sons’ activities and plans, often pointing to new, updated photographs. He was delighted to welcome Cheryl into the family, and regretted that his physical frailty did not allow him to be at the wedding. Yet he rejoiced nonetheless. He was looking forward to Alexander’s being in Chicago this summer.
Through the years, the University of Chicago proudly loaned Norton to other institutions of learning—the Hebrew University, the Environment and Policy Institute of the East-West Center, which Norton gladly directed for a few years, and the University of Hawaii, among others. He served on editorial boards of journals dealing with economic development, geography and environment. He compiled atlases, published papers that influenced foreign policy, and offered significant observations on urbanization and national development for large and small, rich and poor nations alike. He wrote the article on “Area” for the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. (How many of us would think of that as an encyclopedia topic?) He was also a gifted moderator, who knew how to pose the seminal questions on tough issues. Most memorable was a radio program on the growing crisis in Vietnam that he moderated for the University and for NBC radio in July, 1954. One of the panelists whom he questioned was a young senator, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Norton regarded himself as a fact-finder, an interpreter of “patterns of occupants.” Yet he also acted for social justice. He served on the National Commission of UNESCO, and also on the Southeast Asia Development Advisory Committee. He took seriously his role as a geographer and as a professor to make the world a better place. The closest Hebrew phrase to this goal is tikkun olam, which means literally to “repair the world.” Norton truly believed that better academic conditions in all countries, better libraries for research, better education, would go a long way toward improving life. At the conclusion of a talk on “The Mission of a Scholarly Society,” published in 1972, he said: “[W]e are not here to mirror the chaos of the world, but to attempt to straighten it out.”
On the home front, Norton was an organized and gracious baal ha-bayit, home-owner and host. His home reflected his appreciation of architecture and fine art. He was a cat-lover and enjoyed his feline companions.
Family and friends admire, and are grateful for, Diana’s unwavering and attentive devotion to Norton, and the wise and effective decisions that she made to see that he received proper care, and every dignity and respect, literally adding several good years to his life, and enabling him to make new friends and to remember as much as possible his accomplishments and associations throughout the years of his illustrious career. Norton appreciated this, and commented to me—and, most important, to Diana—several times about her skills at organizing things in a gracious and graceful way, and he was one who recognized and valued fine organization.
As it happens, this week’s Torah reading, Ekev, contains a passage familiar to us as the second paragraph of the Shema, “V’haya im shamoa—If you will hearken unto My commandments,” which speaks of the effect of the moral life of society on the topography, the natural resources, on the earth and on the rains and on the heavens, literally. Also, as it happens, the haftarah, the reading from the Prophet Isaiah of the Returning Exiles, is where we get the name of our Congregation: “Shim’u elai Rodfei Zedek, Hearken to Me, ye who pursue righteousness,” ye who want to know what is right and to do it. Norton’s teachings and writings related righteous, just actions, to geographical challenges.
We at Congregation Rodfei Zedek are proud and honored to have had Norton—and Diana—as loyal members. We enjoyed seeing Norton at services and other events, most recently a few months back, whenever Diana could wheel him over on a Friday night. When we celebrated the fiftieth birthday of the State of Israel, we, of course, invited Norton to speak on the topic, “Does Israel Have Natural Boundaries?”
May he rest in peace. May his memory be a blessing, even as we affirm in our faith a life beyond this earthly life, in God’s Presence. Amen.