Two weeks before he graduated from Lakeside High School in May 1912, Fred William Norton competed in the inaugural Ottawa County track meet. Amazingly, Fred brought home seven first-place ribbons and added four second-place finishes to carry Lakeside to the team championship.
As amazing as that might be, there is, in fact, no shortage of “amazings” in Fred Norton’s brief life. An only child born to working-class parents in the tiny Ohio quarry town of Marblehead in 1894, Norton excelled. At everything.
Most kids of the day ended schooling and began working full-time after eighth grade. But Norton took a different path. He entered Lakeside High School (now Danbury High) in 1908. Along with track, he also competed in football, baseball, and basketball, and he carried a 4.0 academic average all four years there.
According to the Lakeside Heritage Society, he also worked for a local railroad, operating a locomotive and cleaning and repairing buildings and equipment. He often clocked 10-hour days, six days a week.
After graduation, Norton left the peninsula for Ohio State University, where he continued to excel. He made his presence known on every court and field, and became Ohio State’s first four-sport letterwinner.
He was MVP of the baseball team in 1917, when he batted .442 to help secure OSU’s first Big Ten title. He was also captain of the basketball team, and he ran the quarter-mile in track. On the gridiron, Norton once scored six touchdowns in one half in a game against Indiana, but he was better known as a blocking back for Chic Harley on the famed 1916 squad that won the Big Ten title and ignited the program to become what it is today.
At the time of his graduation in 1917, Norton was being called the greatest all-around athlete in Ohio State University history.
Oh, and by the way, he also graduated with a degree in forestry with a 4.0 average, and was a member of Sphinx, the prestigious honorary society.
Reports of the time said he could have played pro baseball — word on the street was, the Pittsburgh Pirates were scouting him. But with World War I well underway, he chose a different path. While still at OSU, he enlisted in the Reserve Officers Training Corps, studying in the school’s military aeronautics program, and when he graduated, he joined the Army, in one of the earliest versions of what would become the U.S. Air Force.
In the spring of 1918, just hours before Norton set sail for France as a first lieutenant, he purchased the leather jacket that he would wear in the cockpit of the British fighter plane that he piloted as a member of the 27th Eagle Pursuit Air Squadron.
He saw action almost right away. Norton and his squad engaged in numerous attacks on German positions and aerial dogfights. He earned a Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery during one such dogfight over the skies of France in early July 1918.
But Norton’s courage and skills could not best fate: On July 20, 1918, as his squadron was returning from a battle behind enemy lines, he took two rounds from a German fighter and died two days later.
At 24, Norton was the first OSU graduate to die in the war. He was laid to rest, along with 6,011 of his countrymen, at Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, 70 miles east of Paris.
And while Norton died more than a century ago, he is not forgotten. At OSU, Norton House residence hall has been home to tens of thousands of students since 1963. From 1923 until the early ’50s, Norton Field served as an airfield in the Columbus area. And at Danbury High School in Lakeside, the Norton Award is presented each year to deserving, high-achieving seniors.
After Norton’s death, his mother received a package labeled “Personal effects,” but she could not bear to open it. She gave it to a neighbor, who stored it away. Years later, the neighbor’s family opened the box and found his leather jacket and a pair of French hospital tags inside, among other items. They’re now on display in the Early Years section of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton.
Norton was inducted into the OSU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2010.