KMA – the 50,000 watt radio station in Shenandoah, Iowa, that made the Everly Brothers famous – never called. Despite that, the Norris Family Band played weekends and special occasions throughout southwest Iowa for events at churches, senior centers, family picnics, and about anywhere they were asked. Mom and Dad were great singers. Mom played the keyboards and Dad played guitar. Brother played the drums, Sister also played keyboards and John strummed the guitar and was known to sing a few John Denver tunes.
Norris earned his life chops early. His parents were active in politics and strong supporters of the NFO movement. Their hog and grain farm required the Norris kids to get the chores done before and after school. John also ran a trap line every cold morning for muskrat, raccoon, and the ever sought-after – one mink. In high school, John was a four-sport athlete and student body president. He enrolled in Simpson College to continue in his favorite sport, wrestling but blew his knee out his freshman year. He re-channeled his energy to the Simpson community as editor of the Simpsonian, the college newspaper, and Chairman of the College Activities Board where he managed the college’s music, arts and entertainment programming.
After graduation, he stepped back and let life come to him; it began with one year helping his grandfather paint houses around his home town of Red Oak. He eventually burst onto the scene as a floor manager for Union Carbide making batteries in Maryville, Missouri. It was not a good fit.
From there John began his journey into politics and policy. He was recruited to work for Congressman Harkin’s Iowa staff and drove the infamous “Harkinmobile” traveling from community to community. He honed his guitar talents, his casework abilities, and his personal skills. He began organizing community events to highlight Harkin’s work, was drawn into fundraising, and, eventually, was recruited to manage a gubernatorial campaign. He went back to his roots during the 1980s Iowa Farm Crisis working for Prairiefire and the Farm Unity Coalition. There he first became active in policy change and advocacy in the Iowa state legislature.
Before long, Jesse Jackson tracked him down to guide his Iowa Presidential race. For John, it was an awakening. His work extended across the country to organizing events and actions with Caesar Chavez, elected officials, musicians, and arts and entertainment activists. In ’93 he organized the Farm Aid Concert in Ames, Iowa featuring Willie Nelson and Neil Young.
Following his Farm Aid work he decided to do what he had wanted since he was nine years old – go to law school. Norris entered the University of Iowa College of Law accelerated program, graduating in two years. Then began a series of key political and policy positions – first as Chief of Staff for Iowa’s newest Congressman, Leonard Boswell. Shortly thereafter, he was elected State Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party. When Tom Vilsack was elected, he became Governor Vilsack’s Chief of Staff, eventually joining Vilsack as the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture’s Chief of Staff in 2009. In the midst of working for the Governor, he took time to manage John Kerry’s 2004 Presidential campaign.
Along life’s interesting way, John ran for Congress, and he bought an historical hotel in Greenfield, Iowa where he ran a restaurant. Not insignificantly, he also got married to Jackie, a teacher who was also active in politics and policy.
During Vilsack’s first term as Governor, electric restructuring had become a significant economic and infrastructure issue. Vilsack tapped John to Chair the Governor’s Working Group on Electric Restructuring and would later appoint him Chairman of the Iowa Utilities Board.
This work led to a passion and a deep policy understanding of one of the country’s most significant issues and challenges, and President Obama twice nominated, and the Senate confirmed, him as a Commissioner on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
His most recent position took the Norris family to Rome, Italy, on a Presidential appointment as the U.S. Minister-Counselor for Agriculture to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Food Program. Over the next two years, “When in Rome,” was often heard around the Norris household.
Even with all this exciting and important work, John and Jackie wanted to load up their three boys and move back to Iowa where they both believe they can more actively make a significant difference, simply enjoy life, and make things better.
KMA never did call, Norris has put his former band, the Rodeo Clowns on ice for the time being, but has enjoyed five fabulous years at SPPG. In 2021, John returned to public service to serve as the Polk County Administrator but serves as counsel on issues and causes importance to the SPPG Family.