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After 40 years in Russellville, Norris still striving to serve his community

It was a phone call from B.J. Kelley that changed the course of Lanny Norris's professional life.

The year was 1977. Norris's football coaching career saw him coaching the secondary at East Carolina University under head coach Pat Dye. Norris and his wife Donna had their first child in the fall of 1976. Donna was teaching elementary school.

Norris came home one day after spring practice, and Donna told him B.J. Kelley had called. Kelley, the State Farm manager in Russellville, knew Norris and had kept up with his football career, both as a player and coach. Larry Osborn, a former State Farm agent in Russellville, had been promoted to a manager position in Florence and State Farm's new policy was to replace agents who were promoted, retired or deceased with two new agents. Gus Garrard was the first hired to replace Osborn, and Norris became the second.

He opened the doors of his North Washington Avenue office on August 1, 1977. Forty years later, Norris remains as busy as ever, and he still has the passion to come to work every day, even at age 66.

“When B.J. called, I was interested for two reasons," Norris said. "Donna was teaching elementary school and I was coaching college ball, and neither job paid anything. I loved what I was doing, but we'd just had our first child in the fall and I felt like I never saw my family because I was gone all the time. And we had to figure out how to eat the last two weeks of each month.

“I met with B.J., and we talked. After that, I decided to come back. The first two years as a State Farm agent under a training contract, you pretty much starved, so I tell people I made the transition easily because I went from starving in North Carolina to starving in Alabama. But it was worth what we went through, because it ended up being a great forty years."

When Norris headed to the University of Alabama in the fall of 1968 to play football for the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant, he never dreamed his future would be as an insurance agent in his hometown. Football was in his blood, and if his career wouldn't continue as a player after college, it would continue in the coaching ranks.

“I never dreamed I'd come back to Russellville," Norris said. "I always thought I'd be coaching. I loved it and was pretty good at it. We had good teams at East Carolina, and I felt the secondary was coached well. But after Jennifer was born on August 20, 1976, I got to hold her five minutes and then had to get to the first team meeting that afternoon. I felt like I didn't get to see her again until December, because I was getting up early and coming in late. That's when I first began thinking I might do something else.

“I remember my childhood here and how good it was. I wanted our kids to grow up here like I did. It ended up being a great move, raising our family here. I wouldn't take anything for it."

Norris also credits his wife Donna for supporting his career move from North Carolina to northwest Alabama.

“Donna has stuck with me through forty-three years, through better or worse," Norris said. "We had some difficult times, but she's been a loyal, faithful and supportive wife."

It would be an understatement to describe the insurance industry in 1977 as different from today. After he traveled to Montgomery to take his state exams for auto, fire, life and health insurance [he passed], Norris hit the ground running. Kelley had purchased the North Washington building from the Jones family, which had used it as dental clinic for years. Norris rented from Kelley the first three years before buying the building in 1980.

“The way training worked then," Norris said, "I took the test, passed the test, came back and B.J. gave me three rate books and the keys to the office and said, 'Go get it.' So that was the training.

“It was either sink or swim and learning on the run. There weren't any computers. Everything was on paper and sold strictly out of a rate book.”

Norris became the third State Farm agent in Russellville, following Sam Cantrell and Garrard. Today, Norris's fellow State Farm agents in town are Lee Nickels and Diana Fisher.

“I was at a conference a few years after I became an agent," Norris said. "I was talking with an agent from Wyoming. He was from a city of 30,000, and he was the only agent there. He asked how many people lived in my hometown, and I said we had 10,000 with three agents. His eyes got big, and he asked again, 'Three agents?' He asked how I could stand that, and I said because I was the third one.

“I appreciate the trail blazed by Sam and Gus. Each of us had our own life and set of friends. Sam was an agent more than forty-five years, and Gus retired after forty-one years. The fact that we made it this long and co-existed and still made a living says we did pretty well together. But it does create some confusion when there are three agents in a town this size."

Norris and his family are members of First Baptist Church in Russellville. He has been active in numerous community and civic events.

“Lanny is one of the best-known individuals in Russellville as a result of his school days and playing football for the Bear, but more particularly because he's been part of the community in every respect,” said Norris''s friend Cecil Batchelor. “Whenever something good is going on in our community, you can bet your boots Lanny Norris is part of it. He's well-known and loved by many people.”

While Norris has no plans to retire any time soon, he and Donna do travel frequently to Birmingham and Atlanta to visit their grandchildren. When he's gone, Norris entrusts his office to his staff of four employees: Andrea Canida (19 years with State Farm); Rallie Crow (15 years); Tammy Thomas (three years) and Brittany Gault Richards (one year).

“I don't worry about taking off," Norris said, "because I know they run the office like I would."

He also recalled the contributions of some previous team members along the 40-year path.

“Judy West was with me thirty years, Mary Crow for ten years and Amanda Brazil for seven years," he said. "They, as well as my current team members, were great contributors to our success."

Much of today's insurance business is done online, with faceless companies and the absence of a local agent. For 40 years, Norris has worked to develop relationships with his customers, and that's not going to change.?

“What I built my business on is being available all the time and trying to build personal relationships, and I feel that's what makes State Farm the number one company in the country,” Norris said. “Because of the Internet, there's a segment of people shopping online for insurance who aren't interested in a relationship. They just want the cheapest price. A lot of new agents go after that business and spend a lot of time on Internet leads. We don't really do that here. The biggest think I think folks need is someone who can be there and they can talk to and can help them get through a situation when they have a claim. You're paying for someone to be your advocate.

“Through the grace of God, anything that works requires hard work, but the Bible says man plants and sows, but God gives the increase. He's been gracious over the years to give us increase. not because we deserved it but because of His love and mercy. I felt like I made a difference in the lives of my players when I was coaching, and now hopefully over the last forty years I've helped make a difference in the lives of people who had problems and situations where they needed help. And I hope anyone insured with me feels like I've gone the extra mile in every situation."

So when will he retire? Norris has no time frame.

“I've often said I'll do this until the point where I get up in the morning and don't want to come down here," Norris said. "So far I'm not at that point. I'm 66. Will I retire at 70? I don't know. I know agents who do this into their mid-80s. There's no mandatory retirement age with State Farm.

"One day I'll wake up and say I'm not really enjoying going down there anymore, but right now I still get a kick out of it."

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