Robert C. Norris 1929-2019
Robert C. Norris, owner of the famous T-Cross Ranches of Colorado and Arizona, as well as Quarter Horse breeder, and former NCHA member, who played the first Marlboro Man on television, passed on peacefully in the care of Pikes Peak Hospice, November 3, 2019, surrounded by his family.
“Bob” was born on April 10, 1929 in Chicago, Illinois to Delora and Lester Norris. He attended Elgin Academy in St. Charles, Illinois, where he grew up. He attended the University of Kentucky, where he played football under Coach Paul William “Bear” Bryant.
On June 24, 1950, he married his wife Jane Wright, then a recent graduate of DePauw University’s Asbury College of Liberal Arts in Green Castle, Indiana. In 1953, the couple moved to Ft. Collins, Colorado where they bought the Rist Canyon ranch. As their family grew, they moved to Black Forest in 1957, and subsequently created their permanent home in the Broadmoor area. Some years later they created a winter home in Paradise Valley, Arizona.
Bob knew early what he wanted. He fell in love with Jane. And he fell in love with ranching. Both were love affairs of a lifetime. Though he came from a family most of whom were financiers and lawyers, he had an uncle in the ranching business who taught him the basics. In 1950 Bob went into the horse and cattle business, with one of his first purchases being the T-Cross brand—the first brand registered in Colorado. A few years later Norris established that brand with the purchase of 20,000 acres that became the start of the T-Cross Ranch south of Colorado Springs, later to be home to 150 head of horses and more than 1,000 cow and calf pairs, and eventually to expand to a 63,000-acre spread. A second ranch was later established in Arizona. After 69 years, the T-Cross Ranches have one of the most distinguished reputations in the industry, with well-established leadership in both Quarter Horse and cattle operations.
If any man could be described in three words, for Bob they would be “the real deal.” His solid authenticity, whether astride a horse, sitting in a board room, mentoring a child or sharing a moment with a friend, was his personal and professional brand. No doubt it was these qualities—along with his tall, ruggedly handsome, lanky good looks—that landed him the unexpected role of the first Marlboro Man on television.
The iconic commercials ran for about fourteen years in the U.S. and Europe. Rather than taking his fame seriously, he enjoyed the adventure. Bob regaled his friends with various misadventures during these shoots, often highlighting the fictional world of television with the real world of ranching he actually lived. But Bob, never a smoker, abandoned the campaign when he felt he was setting a poor example for his children.
His acting career might have continued, however, when John Wayne offered him a role in the 1971 film Big Jake. Instead, he and Wayne began a friendship when Bob helped with the star’s first foray into the cattle business. Wayne came to several of Norris’ horse sales and the two became close friends. Bob and Jane spent more than a dozen Thanksgivings with the Waynes at their Arizona Ranch.
For a number of years, Norris was a member of the Board of Trustees for the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, also known as the Cowboy Hall of Fame, which inducted John Wayne. Norris began serving on the Board of Directors in 1972 and remained on the board until his own induction, at which time he was included in a special category: The Hall of Great Westerners.
What made Bob a great Westerner were qualities like fairness and generosity, paired with shrewd management and a keen eye for quality. His cattle, including Herefords, Salers and a mix of the two, attracted attention world-wide. The ongoing development of the American Quarter Horse was one of his prime interests, and his ranches produced a long list of champions, including Tee Cross, whom Norris bred and raised. Tee Cross became an AQHA champion, winning in multiple events. Tee Cross was then retired to stud, sired thirty foals, and lived to be thirty-six. Bob continued riding Tee Cross’s offspring for many years.
Norris served as 1982 American Quarter Horse Association president, as President of the Rocky Mountain Quarter Horse Association, and served on numerous boards, including the FBI Citizens Academy in Arizona, the Colorado Board of Agriculture, the Pikes Peak Cattleman’s Association, to name only a few. He received a 55- year pin for Pikes Peak Range Riders in 2017 and became an honorary member of Cowboys Artists of America. His love of the arts also brought him to the founding board of the Colorado Festival of World Theatre.
Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell praised Norris for “embodying the spirit of the West.” Indeed, Bob sometimes seemed a real-life example of a Louis L’Amour character. Bob was an avid reader of L’Amour, whose own commitment to authenticity and personal experiences made his characters and stories ring true. Norris and L’Amour met and became fond acquaintances.
In the 1980s, Bob was called upon to represent thirty-seven of his family members who owned stock in Texaco in what was then the largest lawsuit in the U.S. He was tasked with organizing a committee to ensure shareholders were treated fairly when Texaco, the nation’s third-largest oil company, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Norris’s ancestor John Gates had been a founder of the Texas Company, which became Texaco. Bob helped negotiate the settlement down to 3 billion dollars in 48 hours, preventing a hostile takeover and saving pensions for thousands of retirees. The experience brought Bob the nickname “The Cowboy on Wall Street.” The story is chronicled in Oil and Honor: The Texaco Penzoil Wars by Thomas Petzinger, Jr.
In 2003, some unusual visitors came to the T-Cross, when the owner of five baby elephants leased stalls. The elephants had been orphaned in Zimbabwe, rescued, and transported to the U.S. At the urging of his children, he adopted the baby elephant named Amy. When she finally got too big for the ranch—eight feet tall and weighing in at 4,000 pounds—he sent her to Buckles Woodcock in Florida, where she enjoyed a comfortable, humane life among other elephants. In her retirement, Amy lived at the Fresno Zoo, once again finding a home with animal companions and benevolent humans who cared for her. Norris continued to visit Amy throughout her life until her passing in 2016. She often greeted him by first waving her trunk and then hugging him around the waist with her left front foot.
The unusual relationship between Cowboy Bob and Amy the Elephant is chronicled in A Cowboy and His Elephant by Malcolm MacPherson, published in 2001. The beautiful story is told again in the children’s book Cowboys Love Elephants Too by his daughter Carole Sondrup, which was published in 2018 and won the prestigious 2019 Mom’s Choice Award.
Bob had a special affinity for animals. He often spoke about the love and respect he had for them, qualities that were abundantly obvious in the way he communicated with them, and the way they responded to him. He shared this love for animals in many ways, including special rides he arranged for disabled children, who for the first time were able to enjoy a transformative experience in the great outdoors.
Bob was a man of unassuming manner that belied his vast accomplishments. A devoted husband and father, he doted on his grand-children and great-grandchildren, and cherished the homes he and his wife created, not just for their expansive beauty and exquisite taste, but because they were the heart of activity for family and friends.
Bob and Jane loved their communities and their friends. They were the oldest members of the Cheyenne Mountain Country Club, and decades-long members of Garden of the Gods Club,
Broadmoor Golf Club, and the Paradise Valley Country Club in Arizona. Often creating special gatherings that were both elegant and casual in these favorite spots, they offered convivial gatherings, extending the warmth of their friendship to an ever-widening sphere.
Norris considered the highlight of his life to be “the joys of family working together” on the ranch. The family legacy continues with the T-Cross ranches in Colorado and Arizona, and with son Bobby’s successful ranch and horse-training operation near Fort Worth, Texas.
Did Bob ever retire? He made his last range ride in 2017, but always remained actively engaged in ranch operations, and avidly interested in the future through his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “It’s been a good run,” he once said. He never sold his saddle. He knew he’d need it when it was time to ride into the sunset.
Bob is survived by his eldest sister Lavern Gaynor of Naples, Florida; and by his and Jane’s four children: Steve Norris; Carole Sondrup and son-in-law Ron Sondrup of Windsor, Colorado; Leslie Penkhus and son-in-law Bob Penkhus of Colorado Springs; and Bobby Norris and daughter-in-law JJ Norris of Ft. Worth, Texas.
Bob is also survived by thirteen grandchildren including (children of Steve Norris) Shada Brazil, Steven Norris, and Kayla Norris; (children of Carol and Ron Sondrup) Ryan Sondrup, Jennifer Dunn, and James Sondrup; (children of Leslie and Bob Penkhus) Robbie Penkhus, Jamie Cohen, and Chad Penkhus; and (children of Bobby and JJ Norris) Ashley Norris, Audra Norris, Gates Norris, and Rhett Norris. Bob is also survived by eighteen great-grandchildren.
A celebration of life will be held Friday, November 8 at 1:00pm - 3:00pm at the Norris Penrose Event Center, 1045 Lower Gold Camp Road, Colorado Springs.
In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting donations be made to the Roundup for Autism www.roundupforautism.org or to TAPS ( Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) www.taps.org\colorado which helps families of fallen veterans.