Tallangatta’s Norm Crisp realised early that life wouldn’t be longer or happier if he became obsessed with chasing wealth
Ambition is a byword for stress in Norm Crisp’s mind.
That means it’s a fairly uncomplicated, easy-to-handle thing that he never went down that path.
He tinkered with the idea of it, as a teenager, living in Melbourne’s then working class inner-north, the slightly grimy but all-embracing community of Northcote, decades before it went hipster, began to offer-up million dollar weatherboards on shaky stumps and joists.
Accountancy might have been it as he tossed around his options, when he was a student at the selective University High.
But Dad saw an ad in The Age, just a few lines, for the promise of a lucrative life in the country. And at that time, lucrative was more about the chance for a few luxuries than the outrageously unnecessary.
It might have read something like this: “Country newsagent, goodwill, $18,000.”
In the late 1960s, that was still a fair bit of coin and it wasn’t just a matter of putting your hand up and getting the nod.
Next step was for his father to apply for more information. That sort of thing wasn’t just handed out to anyone. He was “screened” to “make sure you were suitable enough to be given that information for a start”.
He made the shortlist of six for Tallangatta, ended up as preference No.3. But No.1 couldn’t sell his newsagency at Yackandandah and had to pull out.
No.2 had to “go through a whole lot of rigmarole” with the banks to afford it, so couldn’t be bothered doing that all again.
“And we took it, it was meant to be. That’s how we got here in February ’68.”
And it’s where he has stayed, for right on 50 years now, ticking over the business, making connections, enjoying their 11 grandchildren, having done likewise with their own four kids.
Not rolling in the money, but that word again – ambition.
Norm Crisp worked out early it didn’t make life last longer, didn’t give you a quicker way to make friends, to feel the satisfaction of being an indispensable part of a community, for he and his wife, Jenni, a born and bred in the town-type, who married young Norm just a few years after the Crisps arrived in town.
“The thing about Jenni and I, we’re not ambitious people,” he says.
“We just like to let things flow.”
Sitting on the back verandah, chooks pecking the lawn behind him, giving his cigarette a gentle drag before putting it out to take-up again a bit later, he nods towards the house, the old weatherboard taken for a drive when the town moved in the mid-’50s.
“This is the house we bought in 1974 when we got married,” he says.
“This is a home. And we’re very lucky. It’s an emotional feeling.
“We shared our kids’ journeys most of the time, especially Jenni”
HE reckons he was about 12 when he got the first inkling of what truly made him this kid Norm Crisp.
It was probably an even stronger realisation than that.
First it was a job as a paperboy with then Leader Budget, owned for some time by one of the Motts, the family who racked-up just over 100 years running The Border Mail. Years later the Mail’s staff became like his second family.
“I was told by one of the boys doing the rounds that the week before Christmas they’re going to knock on the door and say ‘here’s your Leader Budget, I’m your Leader Budget boy’ – and you pick up a shilling, two shillings. I got 20 quid.”
At one house they wanted him to come inside “for a vino”. He knocked back the cheap plonk, as such a young boy would.
A regular edition of 28 pages would earn the paperboys seven shillings and sixpence for the 250 papers they had to deliver.
When that increased to 40 pages, the going rate lifted to 10 and sixpence.
It was another job that firmly made up his mind of who he was and what he was going to be. It made sense to the young lad.
He was 12 and he’d also become a part-time grocery delivery boy in Separation Street, Northcote.
Norm would load the parcels on to racks attached to his bike’s front handlebars, then later had to re-stock the shop.
“The gentleman’s name was Roy Fredericks,” he says of his boss.
“Back in those days the brown sugar used to come wrapped in brown paper, so you had to put that to the side for putting the butter in for orders later in the week.”
The grocer would also take deliveries of chooks, in wooden crates.
When the birds came out, so did the nails in the crates.
That was the delivery boys’ job.
“You saved everything. And you did a lot of weighing out,” he says.
“That would have been 1962.”
At the time he was being educated at Westgarth Central, but because the school only went up to Year 8 he had to move on to a technical or High school.
“I was lucky enough to go to University High School,” he says.
“I didn’t really know where I was going, I didn’t have a career path in mind. Accountancy maybe.
“University High though was very much teacher training-orientated so I could see myself going to probably Coburg Teachers’ College.”
But it was around this time that his father, a toolmaker, decided on a change that was significant for him but much more so for Norm.
His dad, who is still alive and into his 90s, had done a business management course, had clocked 20 years in his job and thought he’d use his long-service leave to investigate becoming a newsagent.
And so in 1968 they left Melbourne for Tallangatta just as Norm was about to begin what is now Year 12.
Just three of the subjects he needed for his matriculation were offered at the school, so Norm had to do the rest of his study by correspondence.
The newsagency, which they took over in February, quickly won-out.
Norm began spending more time there than at school and so the teenager accepted his double-life wasn’t going to last.
“I think at the exams at the end of the year I walked out of all of them,” he says.
It was an easy decision for him to make because he felt strongly that his “vocation had fallen into into place”.
“It was meeting people.”
IT floored them both, for opposite reasons that were also very much the same.
In 2005, Norm was convinced his Jenni was going to get the nod in Towong Council’s Australia Day awards.
She had helped start-up a program instructing people on how to deal with the grieving process, out of which one of the locals ended up becoming a professional counsellor.
Jenni was already community through-and-through, but so was Norm. Her husband had also put a lot of work into the grief sessions.
And so it made sense to Jenni that Norm would get the nod.
Life had already been immensely rewarding, across all parts of their life – the business, making the kids their priority and becoming an integral part of the fabric of life in Tallangatta.
“It’s been a wonderful journey for us,” Norm says.
“But it then happened that Jenni and I were awarded citizen of the year. This is the first time that it had happened, with a husband and wife.
“It was a lovely feeling. The thing is that in most cases we do all that we do naturally.”
Jenni’s bachelor uncle had died and because she had been looking after him for a long time, she made contact with a grief counsellor at Wodonga hospital.
“She rang up here looking for Jenni to see whether she had any grieving issues,” Norm says.
“I suggested to her that she should do a session on it out here at Tallangatta, that I could find half a dozen people to be taught. We did that and quite a few attended.
“Things like that make you feel good, that you can create things for other people.”