Chris Norton 1950-2012

By Mary Maloney
Monday June 25, 2012 - 04:47:00 PM

Chris Norton died on Friday, June 22, 2012 at his home in Sebastopol, surrounded by loving family and friends. Born June 5, 1950 in Manhattan, New York, to Sylvia Staudt Norton and Charles Norton, Chris was a proud graduate of Stuyvesant High School in New York, attended Amherst College and then moved to Northern California in the 1970's, drawn by the political climate and activism. In 1981 he attended the National Autonomous University in Mexico City where he studied Spanish, history and political economy. He graduated with honors from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in Central American Studies in 1983, writing his senior thesis on the rise and fall of General Rios Montt (Guatemala). In 1981, he won the University Presidential Grant to conduct independent research in Central America. 

As a teenager reading the New York Times, Chris began following world events and in particular U.S. involvement in world affairs. Always an avid reader with a keen mind and a remarkable historical memory, he had a great ability to seek out authentic resources to learn the truth. His passion was foreign affairs and U.S. Foreign policy. He could synthesize information from many sources to grasp the historical context, and could readily discuss world history and political movements both past and present. 

Early on, Chris demonstrated his passion for truth and social justice, and a strong commitment to the underdog. He staunchly opposed the Vietnam War, and was an activist supporting the many causes dearest to his heart, always proud of his progressive politics. He was active in the United Farm Workers movement and the Berkeley Free Clinic. Chris was invited to live at Maggie's Farm in Berkeley, an eclectic activist commune which also boasted the largest compost pile in the city of Berkeley. Chris was an activist member of MASV (Men Against Sexist Violence), speaking in schools and public forums, and worked as a producer for KPFA's weekly radio program “Men's Lives” broadcast in 1976-1977. 

In the 1980s, Chris closely followed U.S. foreign policy especially in Central America. At UC Berkeley he was active in SAINTES, Students Against Intervention in El Salvador. From 1981 to 1983 he was a writer for UC Berkeley's Daily Californian covering the conflicts in El Salvador and Guatemala; he reported on the Salvadoran election in 1982 and on Guatemala in the aftermath of the military coup that brought General Rios Montt to power. Chris soon decided that Central America was where he wanted to be, and it was the story he wanted to report. 

Initially he worked as an interpreter and interviewer for the San Francisco Examiner's 1982 award-winning “Tortured Land” series in El Salvador and Guatemala. Critical of the news coverage of the U.S. funded war in El Salvador, in 1984 Chris began his career as a foreign correspondent, reporting from El Salvador as the stringer for In These Times, later adding the Christian Science Monitor, Time Magazine, Newsday, the London Independent, the Toronto Globe and Mail and NBC Radio. Consistently, and often at great personal risk, Chris was committed to telling the real story of El Salvador. His reporting shed light on the collaboration of the U.S. government with the Salvadoran military and the military/civilian death squads responsible for the torture, disappearances and murder of over 75,000 Salvadorans. On October 31, 1989, while interviewing a leader of a union federation, he survived a massive bombing of the federation's offices, which took the lives of ten unionists and injured thirty-three. Chris was fearless in his commitment to the truth which earned him the animosity of the U.S. Embassy, the Salvadoran military and the ruling right-wing Arena party. 

In demand as a speaker and media critic, Chris participated in a panel of four journalists invited to speak at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Congressional Human Rights Committee and other forums. He addressed audiences at the Harvard School of Government, the Carter Center at Emory University, the Columbia School of Journalism and Sonoma State University. While a resident journalist in El Salvador, he regularly briefed church delegations, human rights investigators and members of Congress on fact-finding missions. He wrote articles for NACLA (North American Congress for Latin America) and a chapter for A Decade of War: El Salvador Confronts the Future. In 1991 while investigating the assassination of a soldier, Chris found a bullet placed outside the door of his residence, a not-so-subtle threat, and he decided it was time to return to the U.S. 

Chris met his wife, Mary Maloney, in El Salvador in 1985 and they were married in 1990. Back in Northern California, now married and raising beloved daughter Sophie, Chris worked as a carpenter with several local contractors and in 1997 joined Burbank Housing Development Corporation as a construction supervisor teaching low income homeowners, many Spanish-speaking, how to build their own homes. With his gregarious nature and fluent Spanish, he developed close connections and was well-loved by the homeowners. 

Besides his wife and daughter, Chris is survived by: brother Nick Norton and sister Felicia Norton (Moinuddin) both of New York; sisters/brothers-in-law Cathy and Peter Schneider, Pat Carroll, Jean Maloney, Sheila Maloney Kelly, Maureen Maloney and Ron Carroll; nephews Ben (Momo), Tim (Jackie), Jason (Angie) and Jesse (Aleta); and nieces Gabe (Jim), Leah (David) and Annie (Jade). He was loved and treasured by Sophie's closest girlfriends. He had many life-long dear friends, including Larry Mandella, Tom Berry and so many more. 

A memorial mass will be held at Resurrection Church, 303 Stony Point Road, Santa Rosa, on Wednesday, June 27th at 11:00 a.m., with a reception following. Donations in Chris' memory may be made to the organization where Mary works, Face To Face, 873 Second Street, Santa Rosa, California 95404.