Control Data founder William Norris dies

  • Article by: SUSAN E. PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 21, 2006 - 7:11 PM

William Norris, the legendary founder of Control Data Corp., died early Monday after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 95.

William Norris, the legendary founder of Control Data Corp., died early Monday after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 95.

"His mind was always very, very clear up to the end," said his son, Roger Norris. "His body just gave out before his mind did."

Norris founded Engineering Research Associates with others in St. Paul in 1946. The company pioneered the development of the digital computer, and in 1951 merged with Sperry Rand Corp. Norris headed Sperry's Univac division, which built "electronic brains" in St. Paul, through 1957, when he left to co-found Control Data Corp.

By 1960 his company was building the most powerful computer in the world. Control Data grew to be one of Minnesota's largest companies, with $5 billion in sales and 60,000 employees at its peak in the early 1980s. However, the company suffered with the rise of the personal computer and other technological changes that cut into its primary market of large mainframe computers.

Robert Price, who succeeded Norris as CEO of Control Data and worked with him for 30 years, said Norris was a pragmatist as well as an "incredible entrepreneur."He was an observer of basic behavior ... he could see beyond what most people could see," Price said. An early example was an iconic story around Control Data, he said. Norris was a young man living on his family's farm in the 1930s, at the time of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. "Bill had seen the cows picking green thistles, also known as tumbleweed, out of the hay," Price said. "So he harvested as much of the thistle as he could. ... Most of the neighbors thought he was nuts, but it was that thistle that kept the cows alive."

In 1992, six years after Norris retired as CEO at age 74, the company was split into an information services business called Ceridian, now a profitable company with a $1.4 billion market value, and the dwindling mainframe computer products business designated as Control Data Systems, which later was acquired.

Norris didn't stop his visionary ways in "retirement." He founded the William Norris Institute, which focused on some key initiatives he had long championed at Control Data: using technology to improve K-12 and higher education, fostering small business development in disadvantaged areas of the Twin Cities and developing a technical training program in Moscow for budding Russian entrepreneurs.

In 2001, the institute became part of the College of Business at St. Thomas University. Michael P. Moore, director of the institute, said Norris transferred $2.3 million to the institute to be used for investment in innovative, socially beneficial technology companies.

"For companies just getting started, he recognized that the main missing piece was startup capital," Moore said. "Our mission is making early stage investments and using the resources of the College of Business to help companies get started right and grow."

Norris is survived by his wife of 61 years, Jane Malley Norris; eight children -- sons William, George, Daniel, Brian, Roger and David, and daughters Constance Van Hoven and Mary Keck; 21 grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

There will be a public visitation from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the O'Halloran & Murphy funeral home, 575 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul. Funeral services will be announced later.

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