LAMOINE — Chester Norris, a Maine native who traveled the world with the Foreign Service yet maintained close ties to family and friends here, died Nov. 15. He was 88.
Norris passed away in Naples, Fla., following a brief illness. He and his wife, Ulla Helena Raberg Norris, also maintained a home in Lamoine.
“Maine was very much a part of who he was,” said Norris’s younger sister, Beth Holmes of Portland. “It gave him a sense of decency and honor and the things that count in our lives.”
In his years with the U.S. Foreign Service, Norris had postings in Israel, where he met his wife, Australia, London, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York.
He also was Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Republic of Equatorial Guinea under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
It was under his tenure that that the first contracts were negotiated between American energy interests and the government of Equatorial Guinea.
In recognition of his contributions to the energy industry, a methanol tanker in 2000 was christend The Ambassador Norris.
Holmes, his sister, said Norris’s interest in government and in making a contribution was fostered at the family’s kitchen table in Winterport.
“My father was very interested in politics,” she said, adding that he was an avid reader of the Congressional Record. “This was at the time of President Roosevelt and the National Recovery Administration. It was a great learning experience for us.”
Holmes said her brother, who, like his three siblings, attended a one-room schoolhouse at Great Pond Plantation 33 for one winter, was indefatigable.
“Chester was never tired,” she said. “He was always going and seeking and doing. At Winterport High School he helped raise more money for the yearbook than anyone had ever done.”
“It never occurred to him to not work hard, to not achieve, to not make a contribution,” she said.
In his home state, Norris was involved with the Bar Harbor-based Maine Sea Coast Mission, which sponsors the EdGE summer and after-school programs for children in Downeast Maine.
Gary DeLong, former executive director of the Sea Coast Mission, recalled an exchange with Norris at one of the organization’s annual meetings.
“Chet noticed one teenage girl who needed dental work. He asked me about her,” DeLong said. “I explained that there was no money in her family and she needed a ton of dental work. He said, ‘Get it done and Ulla and I will take care of it.’”
Norris attended the Maine Maritime Academy and graduated from the University of Maine at Orono, where he was recipient of the university’s Stillwater Society Award.
He worked in several family businesses, among them a Bangor car dealership, real estate, a public utility company and a construction company.
His widow, Ulla, said her husband was inspired to join the government by the quote from President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech: “My fellow Americans, Don’t ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
“It was just at the right time of his life to make a change,” said Ulla. “Margaret Chase Smith arranged for him to have interviews in Washington with the Department of Commerce.”
The couple met and married during his first posting as commercial attaché in Tel Aviv.
During the Six-Day Arab Israeli War in 1967, Norris was in charge of evacuating nonessential staff from the American embassy in Tel Aviv.
Ulla was recovering from surgery for appendicitis and was confined to an underground space below the embassy, not able to travel.
“Chester was working round the clock, evacuating dependents and central personnel to Cyprus,” she recalled.
When Norris was posted to London, he opened up a second trade center on Regent Street “and it turned out to be the most successful trade center in the whole world,” she said.
One of the American innovations Norris showcased at the new trade center was a nascent technology — telemedicine.
“They were able to do some heart studies in Tel Aviv and then transmit the results to the Mayo Clinic, read them and come back,” she said.
“He encouraged business people to promote themselves overseas,” Ulla said. “The American market had been so huge that they did not feel the need for doing so much overseas.”
Norris’s assignment in Nigeria as economic minister, Ulla said, was tension-filled.
“There were guards outside and bars on the window,” she said of the couple’s quarters. “The day after we arrived we awoke to gunshots outside. It was an expat who was on his way to the bank with money and was ambushed and killed. It was a scary place.”
Norris was appointed head of the economic and social council to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York and worked for Ambassador Vernon Walters.
The couple lived in New York for about a year before Norris was nominated to the Department of State in Equatorial Guinea, which had been a Spanish colony.
“We both had to go and study Spanish for a year in Washington,” she said. “There was all this preparation you had to undergo.”
Following his retirement Norris was asked by Walter International in Houston, Texas, to represent the company in Equatorial Guinea. She said he made dozens of trips there over time, negotiating contracts with the government.
When the two visited Maine, they would often go to the Norris family cottage on Branch Lake.
“His mother would feed us lobster and we would be in dreamland,” she said. “He wanted to retire there and I felt the same way.”
One of their most noteworthy trips as a couple was a one-week adventure from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to Athens, Greece.
Ulla and Norris traveled with a friend, an electrical engineer, in a GMC Elangaza Motor Home that Norris restored himself.
‘In Damascus, the motor home broke down, as it frequently did along the way,” Ulla said. “Then in Turkey we had a major breakdown, so we stayed with a family who later came to visit us in Maine and in Florida.”
She said the trip was “crazy” and memorable.
“We were living on Dinty Moore beef stew and scotch and soda,” she said.
Ulla said Norris was urged many times to write a book about his life, but that his mode of communication was storytelling.
“He would have his nieces in stitches. They loved to hear the same stories over and over. He just had a knack with words. He was just funny,” she said.