Augustus Richard Norton
Inspiration. Guide. Mentor. Guardian Angel. Older Brother. Colleague. Friend.
By Denis J. Sullivan
BCARS Executive Committee Retreat, 2014
1984. Ann Arbor. I was a 4th year PhD student at U of M. Richard was just completing his PhD at Chicago and was invited to speak in Ann Arbor about his time in southern Lebanon and his research on Amal and the Shi’a, soon to become his first book.
To say I was in awe of Richard at that moment is an understatement. I was initially even intimidated – here was a West Point professor and officer; Chicago PhD; UN peacekeeper. I was in the presence of a giant, and I was just a rookie, and just barely that.
The moderator said we had time for “one last question.” I had been holding mine for several minutes; I don’t know what I did to summon up the courage to ask what I was sure would sound like a “stupid question” but I raised my hand and snagged that last spot. I see it now as naseeb (“destiny”).
I have never been able to remember what my question to Augustus Richard Norton was on that day; but I have never forgotten his look of intense concentration as I stood up in the aisle and asked my question. And I have never forgotten his first words: “Well that is a very intelligent question.” In one short sentence, Richard Norton made me feel like a giant, or at least made me feel I wasn’t an interloper or a fraud. Perhaps I was cut out for this career. Perhaps I did have something to contribute.
After the talk, my advisor Jerry Green brought me up to meet Richard (of course I was star struck!). Richard asked my name and shook my hand. And then he was gone. It was all so quick.
1987. Boston. I was a first year assistant professor at Northeastern, and I received a letter from West Point. Richard was inviting me to serve as an observer of his Cadet-led “SCUSA” (Student Conference on US Affairs). My first reaction – after YES! YES! YES! – was: how the heck did this towering figure in Middle East political science remember me? From that one and only (very brief) encounter three years before? Somehow, Richard remembered me and after I went to West Point and enjoyed the weekend with the great Professor Norton and his students, I did everything possible to remain in his orbit.
In subsequent years, Richard continued to help me, mentor me, guide me. He brought me into one of his many orbits, through the APSA Conference Group on the Middle East, which he co-founded and led (and 30 years later, I began to co-lead with him).
1992. With Ford Foundation support, Richard launches the field-changing, “Civil Society in the Middle East Project” at NYU.
1993. Augustus Richard Norton comes to Boston! For me, this was akin to New York, 1964, when “the Beatles have landed!”
1995. “Civil Society in the Middle East” volume 1 is published; my own research finds a new focus and inspiration for the book I’m writing, “Islam in Contemporary Egypt: Civil Society vs. The State.”
2005: Boston Forum on the Middle East. When Richard, Ali Banuazizi (BC), and Leila Fawaz (Tufts) formed the Boston Forum to pool together limited university funds in order to bring more scholars and policy analysts to Boston, I wanted in! Richard immediately said, “yes, but.” The ‘but’ was – do I have funds to add to the “pool”? Short answer was “No, but …” “… But I am applying for some” (and eventually got them).
2013: BCARS is born. And Richard is its Godfather. I tell everyone who listens to us that BCARS took its inspiration from the Boston Forum that Richard co-founded and co-led. Richard regularly told people that BCARS is much bigger than he ever imagined the Boston Forum would be.
Richard served as the founding Chairman of BCARS’ Executive Committee and has been the guiding light, the thoughtful mind, the steady hand, and the inspiration for the work we do.
BCARS institutionalizes all that I have learned from Richard over the past 35 years, beginning with the day he touched me with his kind words and full attention, back in 1984 in Ann Arbor.
What does BCARS represent, and how is this a reflection of Richard? BCARS is about:
mentoring the next generation of scholars;
collaborating, especially across disciplines, generations, and geography;
partnering with colleagues in the Arab Region and Middle East more broadly;
sharing resources, among universities in Boston and in Beirut, Cairo, Amman, Istanbul, and wherever our collective interests lead us;
it’s about policy – and speaking truth to power – to improve relationships between Americans and Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Kurds, Israelis.
And much like Richard, BCARS is about kindness in the ways we treat each other; gentleness in our collaborations; supporting and lifting one another up as we debate ideas and seek greater understanding, and perhaps even “capital T” Truth.
We’ve lost Richard, yet all of us in our own different and similar ways will never lose him. He remains a Guide, an Inspiration, and a Presence always.