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A pioneer of sustainable community, William Norris

By harnessing the financial resources of a major modern corporation to his somewhat rustic notions of the greater good, William Norris hoped to make the world a better place. What’s more, he believed that his efforts could be profitable — not immediately but eventually. This isn’t exactly a controversial idea now, in the age of corporate responsibility, sustainability and greening to stop climate change -- but in Norris’s era it was heresy.

Norris grew up a farm boy in Nebraska, served as a code breaker in the U.S. Navy and was the founder of Control Data Corporation, the Minnesota-based company, now defunct, which at one time was the nation’s fourth-largest computer-manufacturing concern. By 1960 his company was building the most powerful computer in the world. 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 located Control Data’s production plants in riot-torn inner cities and poor small towns.
  • He built some of America’s first wind farms.
  • He started agricultural projects in Alaska.
  • He spent a billion dollars on a computer-based education system, offered his workers the benefit of corporate day care for their children — unheard-of at the time — and even financed a program to lease automobiles to former prison inmates.
  • In retirement, he founded an institute that promoted education and small-business growth.
What his ideas had in common was mostly this: They cost a lot of money up front and they promised unspecified dividends ... maybe someday. In the meantime, they merely helped people live their lives.

The William Norris Institute 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. Many topics interested Norris throughout his career, including corporate social responsibility, computer-based education, economic development and job creation, and U.S. trade and technology transfer with the Soviet Union and Japan.

"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."

William Norris, the legendary founder of Control Data Corp., died in August 2006 after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 95. SOURCE: New York Times