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Dr. Thomas N. Norris

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Obituary: Pediatrician Tom Norris, 74, a healer with humility

  • Article by: JOY POWELL
  • June 21, 2014 - 6:04 PM

The great Halloween Blizzard of 1991 paralyzed the Twin Cities, but that wasn’t going to stop Dr. Tom Norris from seeing his patients. At his St. Paul home, he donned his big old blue parka, prompting his wife to ask where he was going.

“They can’t get anyone to come in,” Norris said of fellow doctors at Riverside Urgent Care in Minneapolis. Out the front door he went from his home near Desnoyer Park, trudging through drifts five miles to the clinic.

Norris, known as a superb pediatrician who always went the extra mile, died June 6 of nonsmoker lung cancer. He was 74.

His wife, Beth Bennington, said Norris loved serving children and teens from diverse cultures. He believed in universal health care and “was always seeking social justice and health care as a right for everyone,” she said.

“He was influenced in the 1960s by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, and he carried that with him throughout his life.”

He was a healer not only as a physician but in many other ways, said his pastor, the Rev. Dan Garnaas of Grace University Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.

“He cared so much about reconciliation,” Garnaas said. “He was concerned about healing certainly his patients, but also healing in families and healing between groups in the community.

“He was concerned about folks who had less, concerned with folks who were struggling more than others in our society, and was deeply concerned about healing between nations. Tom was a peacemaker.”

Norris’ career included over 30 years with HealthPartners, most recently at Como Clinic in St. Paul.

He pioneered program development for Whole Child and Family Life Skills as the director of Minnea­polis Children’s Health Center Outpatient Clinic and received many professional awards over the years.

“My dad loved his work and loved to fight for those who did not have a voice,” said son Jascha Bennington.

Norris was born in Caledonia where his surgeon father, Dr. Neil Norris, owned the hospital. Tom Norris graduated from Willmar High School, Hamline University, Stanford Medical School and later, the University of Minnesota, where he earned a master’s degree in public health.

His residency was at University of New Mexico, followed by private practice in Santa Cruz, Calif., and Albuquerque, N.M., where he adopted a daughter, Kristina “Tina.”

He was a versatile, kind doctor known for humility. On the faculty of Albuquerque’s Lovelace Medical Center, Norris taught pediatric residents including Dr. Mark Nupen.

“His breadth of education including public-health training — working with some of the school programs and the different cultures he encountered in New Mexico and then in St. Paul — is quite unusual for most physicians,” said Nupen, of Anoka. “He was very well read, could teach the material and at the same time take such an interest in his patients.”

Nupen, a longtime friend, said Norris loved the direct care of patients and getting to know their families.

“Above all he had a desire to work hard, an ethic to do the right thing for patients, and a keen intellect to practice up-to-date and best pediatric care,” Nupen said.

Colleagues said Norris’ willingness to help residents learn was exceptional. If a resident called in the night with a care question, Norris wouldn’t answer by phone. He’d drive to the hospital to see the patient with the resident.

“Tom loved and lived to teach,” said Dr. Teresa Kovarik of Como Clinic. She called him a brilliant “lifelong learner” who was equally devoted to his patients.

“Tom’s love of medicine and his drive to provide only the most superior care for his pediatric patients fueled his creativity, giving birth to the visionary Teen Clinic and the overnight coverage program at Fairview Hospital for our patients,” Kovarik said.

Survivors include his wife of 30 years, Beth Kaye Bennington; children Katherine Norris Paries, Kristina Wright, Andre and Jascha Bennington; sisters Kathryn Norris and Kristine Stinson; three grandchildren; and stepmother Dr. Hilde Virnig.

Services have been held.

© 2014 Star Tribune