It was unusual for a strong student to take beginning French as a senior at Colby, but Franklin Norvish ’34 learned late in the game that he would need a third foreign language to be considered for the graduate program in English at Yale. His German and Latin were already solid.
Norvish picked up the basics and spent the summer after graduation translating literary criticism and (to spoil some of the drama) was admitted to Yale. He earned a master’s degree there, went on for a Ph.D. at Boston University, and taught English for 40 years at Northeastern.
That career, though, was interrupted when he served during World War II and put his foreign languages to work in the Army’s Counter-Intelligence Corps. Curiously, one of the most dramatic stories he tells (and there is still much he will not discuss about his work as a special agent during the war) involves none of the languages he studied. Rather, it was Lithuanian—the tongue that he learned from his immigrant mother—that saved the day.
At a checkpoint an Army officer begged for help because 200 displaced Lithuanian civilians were blocking the Army’s progress and no one could communicate with them. Norvish became the intermediary and spent a couple of days getting abandoned German trucks rehabilitated to move the refugees. One Lithuanian widow latched onto him, the first member of the allied forces who could understand her. She begged for help for her 19-year-old son, Vladis, whom she had carried since he lost both feet in a fall from a train car after being conscripted by the Germans.
Norvish went up the chain, persuaded Army doctors to intervene, and Vladis was fitted with prosthetics. Norvish, who turns 98 Oct. 25 and lives in Waterville, still grins like he got away with something as he says, “I didn’t know I had so much pull.”
But the story doesn’t end there. More than 20 years later, Norvish and his son, Phil, were at home in Massachusetts when a car with Connecticut plates pulled in. A middle-aged man lurched up the driveway, announced in heavily accented English that he was Vladis, and dropped to the ground to hug the elder Norvish around the knees.
“It pays to know a language,” Norvish said, going on to recount episodes where his more limited knowledge of Polish and Russian came in handy as well.
Norvish arrived at Colby by train in 1930 and was a friend and fraternity brother of the legendary Ludy Levine ’21. In fact he recalls Ludy’s father, William Levine, speaking with Norvish’s own father in Lithuanian at the men’s clothing store on Main Street.
Norvish’s stories are still ornamented with crisp details—the four-inch letters that said “Do Not Enter” where he boldly entered in 1943 and found his way to counterintelligence, the prescience of Colby planners who buried all the utilities on Mayflower Hill before buildings were begun.
Norvish traces Colby connections throughout his academic career—from Colby graduates who taught high school in his native Brockton, Mass., to a Professor Frederick Pottle, Class of 1917, who eased Norvish’s path to Yale, to John Pugsley, the registrar at Northeastern who helped him get started there.
His loyalty to the College has been extraordinary—he served more than 60 years as class agent, calling classmates to help raise money for the Colby Fund, and received a Colby Brick Award in 1980. At Reunion Weekend this year he was given the Ernest C. Marriner Distinguished Service Award for his lifelong dedication to and support of the College, and at the presentation he charmed the audience with tales of Marriner, whom he had as a professor.
As Norvish listened to reports on class gifts at the awards ceremony, he leaned over in his wheelchair and whispered in President Bro Adams’s ear. And when Adams took the microphone, he shared Norvish’s mischievous suggestion aloud: “Why don’t we split this gift and scram.”
—Stephen Collins ’74