A FAREWELL TO NORTY:  Remembering My Friend, Classmate, “Bro,” & Remarkable American Journalist, Zay Nockton “Norty” Smith — 1949 – 2020 — Was “Norty the Bartender” In Famous “Mirage Tavern” Journalism “Sting” Exposing Chicago Corruption!

Zay Smith
Zay Nockton “Norty”
Lawrence University ’70
Noted American Journalist, Writer, Card Player

We met in the fall of 1966 at “historic” Brokaw Hall, then the freshmen men’s residence, at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. “Norty” was a “regular” at the card tables in the lounge. 

Later, we became friends and “brothers” at the notorious “Sig Ep House,” then located behind the red door at 726 East John Street. That’s right across from Russell Sage Hall, then a women’s dorm. That’s also where our brother “Dick the Stick” once ran a “borrowed” Bobcat from a local construction project up the Sage steps, leaving a deep gash on one of the columns supporting the portico. I remember our kids were impressed when I showed them the then-still-existing mark decades later during an LU reunion (this would have been our “50th,” but we’ve had to “go virtual, at least for now). Something about “For it’s not for knowledge that we’ve come to college, but to raise Hell while we’re here . . . .”

All that nonsense aside, there was plenty of learning and knowledge gathering going on beneath our juvenile stupidity and hijinks. Among the things that marked Norty as one of the “characters”who stays with you for life: humor, satire, and writing. The man could write, boy could he write. Even in those days he stood out as someone who “had the talent” in the world of a small liberal arts college where writing was a “big deal” and many folks did it well. 

For awhile, Norty published his own “underground newspaper,” the Bourgeois Pig, sort of an early forerunner of The Onion. I probably didn’t fully appreciate the true brilliance of “The Pig” at the time. But, I like to think that “a little Pig” still lives on at “Courtside.” If my suppressed ambition was to someday become a “gonzo journalist,” Norty actually lived his dream. He became a real journalist, and a great and famous one at that. Up until his death, his blog writings and Facebook postings would bring a chuckle to my wife Cathy who also was “one of our gang” at Lawrence.

Eventually, Norty and I along with the rest of our “happy brotherhood” — Mink, Biff, Bear, Stick, Liv, SJS, Crummy Andy, B.I., Flip the Owl, Rufus, Joe Don, Hatchell, SK, Herbie, Ma Fowls, Ski, Scottie and a host of other characters — all resided together, if not always in harmony, at “The Ep House.” There was a 24-hour “Shoss” (a/k/a “Sheepshead”) game going in the card room, which, not surprisingly, usually involved Norty. Seems to me that he finished even further “down” the semester-long “owes” tab posted on the wall than I did. But, I could be wrong about that. I’ll readily concede that he played more often and with more skill and strategy than I did.

After a stint in grad school in Iowa City, Norty settled in Chicago where he became a “big time” reporter for the Sun Times. His most famous caper, for which he received national, and perhaps international, attention was the “Norty the Bartender” sting operation in the late 1970s. It’s detailed in all its glory, along with some wonderful “period” photos, in the extensive and beautifully written Sun Times obit by Mark Brown, linked below. But, as Mark points out, there was much more to Norty’s life, career, and his writing than that one blockbuster.

Amazingly, our “band of bros,” or at least the survivors, eventually grew up and became (somewhat) respectable, accomplished, distinguished, and productive members of society: doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, executives, journalists, judges, writers, government officials, military officers, businessmen, authors, horsemen, etc. Like many of us, Norty married, and he and his wife Susy had two terrific sons, Bryant, and Zachary of whom he was exceedingly proud. Indeed, Norty’s family was kind and caring enough to keep all of “the gang” posted on his condition and how we could still share with him right up until the end.

Over the years, I sporadically kept in touch with Norty and the rest of the “Chicago branch of the gang.” I recollect that as my travels as a government, and then private, lawyer sometimes took me to Chicago, I occasionally was able to meet up with Norty, Ski, Bear and the others for a beer or two at some local watering hole. 

We also had some more full-fledged “mini-reunions” in Chicago. One that Cathy and I attended around 2001 hosted by Ski and his wife involved Norty riding in the back cargo area of the station wagon as we headed to a White Sox game. Another, was hosted by “Bear & Betsy” for the Wisconsin-Northwestern football game in Evanston in November  2016. Following the inevitable Badger victory, we all repaired back to Bear and Betsy’s for a great dinner and a massive “Shoss” game with Norty in attendance. Bear “strictly enforced” the “no politics rule” — something that had been added, apparently out of necessity born out of experience, since our days in the old Ep card room.

Sadly, that was the “last hurrah” for that particular configuration of our band. The last time I spoke with Norty by phone was in July 2017. The voice message said “Wick, call me ASAP.” When I did, Norty said “Sit down, you’re not going to like this.” I remember momentarily thinking that he was about to blast me for some egregious grammatical or factual error (or both) on Courtside, or to ask me for advice for a friend on some hopeless immigration case. 

But, no, it was much, much worse. Norty called to tell me that our dear friend and brother Russ “Biff Stoney” Birkos had died suddenly. I sat next to Biff at the last football game, and had rushed to his aid when he was viciously “taken out” by a knee-high metal post in the stadium parking lot. Biff’s first reaction had been: “You’re a lawyer, Wick, can we sue? If not, what good are you?” Typical “brotherhood banter.”

I never spoke with Norty again after Biff’s death, although we continued to keep in touch through our e-mail group.

So, now, yet another of us is gone. Norty, has taken his wit, wisdom, and penetrating human insights on to a “higher audience.” “It’s life,” of course. And, it was expected. But, as I have found at other times, that doesn’t make it any easier. I know how much Susy, Bryant, and Zachary miss him. We all do. A life well-lived and elegantly recounted in every way.

Farewell, Norty. And, thanks for the memories and for everything else, including wiping out my final “Shoss debt!”

A much more extensive and more eloquent obit by Mark Brown of the Sun Times is posted here:

Specials thanks to Bear for getting the obit around so quickly and to Ski for his always inspiring and uplifting comments! 

Brothers Forever!




A FAREWELL TO NORTY:  Remembering My Friend, Classmate, “Bro,” & Remarkable American Journalist, Zay Nockton “Norty” Smith — 1949 – 2020 — Was “Norty the Bartender” In Famous “Mirage Tavern” Journalism “Sting” Exposing Chicago Corruption!