Friends remembered river historian and writer Keith Norrington following his passing on August 30.
Norrington, 69, of New Albany, Ind., served as director and curator of the Howard Steamboat Museum in Jeffersonville, Ind., from 2011 until his retirement in early 2020. He was the third author of the Old Boat Column for The Waterways Journal, penning it from January 2012 until April 2022. He was also an accomplished pianist and calliopist and long associated with the Belle of Louisville steamboat.
Services will take place at 1 p.m. Tuesday, September 5 at Naville & Seabrook Funeral Homes of New Albany. Friends may call at the funeral home from 9 a.m. until the funeral hour.
Norrington was 9 years old when he visited the museum as part of a school trip and in his own words became “hooked on steamboats” after a tour from Loretta Howard. Howard’s family shipyard built the boats for 107 years, and it was her family home that became the museum.
He also was mentored in his love of the river by Ruth Ferris, with whom he began corresponding in 1967, at the age of 13, after she answered a letter he had addressed to Capt. J.W. Menke of the Goldenrod Showboat. He wrote that quickly thereafter he subscribed to the WJ and joined the Sons & Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen.
By age 14, Norrington was volunteering at the museum and leading tours under the tutelage of Howard as well as Alan Bates.
“Having the Belle of Louisville, which Alan’s expertise had recently resurrected from the dilapidated steamer Avalon, nearly at my front door provided another golden opportunity,” he wrote. “I was immediately taken under the wing of the Belle’s friendly crew, learning that, just as the song says, ‘river people are happy to give.’ ”
During summer vacations from high school and later college at Indiana University, Norrington worked for both the Belle of Louisville and Delta Queen, playing the calliope among other duties.
Following his graduation from college, he spent time as a school teacher, church organist and administrator for a pipe organ company.
Travis Vasconcelos, who succeeded Norrington as director of the Howard Steamboat Museum, recalled meeting Norrington for the first time on board the Belle of Louisville in 1977.
“We have shared a friendship on the river that I can’t even begin to put into words,” he said.
The two men worked together at Miller Pipe Organ for a year and then went on to work together at the steamboat museum.
“He saw something in me (and I still don’t know what it could have been) and cultivated my love of the river to the point I was his successor at the museum when he retired,” Vasconcelos said.
He called Norrington “a gentle giant of a man” as well as “a living historian of the steamboat era and one of the nicest people you’d ever care to meet.”
Capt. David Smith, who now pens the Old Boat Column, also met Norrington on the Belle of Louisville, when they were both teenagers. They had been “river friends” ever since, he said.
“I have many things in my collection of river trivia that were very generously sent to me by Keith over the years,” he said. “His enthusiasm for river history and his wealth of knowledge will be greatly missed.”
WJ editor John Shoulberg also spoke about Norrington’s knowledge and love for the river.
“Keith had an encyclopedic memory of river history, and particularly of the many boats that were built by the Howard Shipyard,” Shoulberg said. “He wrote the Old Boat Column for the WJ for just over 10 years, but his connections to the magazine ran far deeper than that, thanks to his friendships with column predecessors Jim Swift and Alan Bates. His enthusiasm for preserving the stories of the steamboat era on the inland rivers will likely never be matched.”
Upon his retirement from the museum, the WJ had asked Norrington to reflect on some of his greatest accomplishments.
“I think some of my biggest accomplishments during my tenure at the HSM were in getting (former Jeffersonville shipyard) Jeffboat to reconnect with their heritage and sponsoring an annual golf scramble with the proceeds going to the HSM,” he said at the time. “The museum realized over $100,000 from the scrambles, thanks to the efforts of Mark Knoy, Patrick Sutton and Angela Csizmadia. Also, in 2014, as part of the centennial celebration of the steamboat Belle of Louisville, I arranged for the HSM to host 41 bus tours during the week.”
Norrington also founded the popular “River Ramblings” annual lecture series in 2006. It has featured river people speaking on topics such as towboating, excursion boats and showboats.
While he ultimately built his career on land, Norrington wrote, “I’ve never lost touch with the river, and although I never pursued a career afloat, my heart will forever remain in the winding channel.”
Caption for photo: Keith Norrington, former curator of the Howard Steamboat Museum and WJ Old Boat columnist, passed away August 30.