He is a UC Riverside icon, beloved even, and yet discouraged from attending official university events. Before his refresh, at least, he had the appearance of having been through it. Sun-bleached, sort of grubby, like he was on the losing side of a fight at the juice bar.
He is Norm T. Navel; also called Norm the Orange, or just Norm (like the corner-stool barfly on “Cheers”). There is no evidence he’s ever been known as “Normange,” though it seems a missed opportunity. Norm is the un-un-unofficial, non-certified, off-brand, flip-flop-wearing UCR mascot-poser. He is an orange – a navel orange, and he’s persistent.
Word of his unannounced and infrequent sightings would spread on campus like an invasive species: Norm seen on the quad… Norm having a coffee with the chancellor, etc.
But since prior to the pandemic, he’s been MIA. Norm sightings stopped, perhaps coincidentally around the time his co-creator/handler Andy Plumley retired. Many students at UCR have never met him. He’s almost invisible on social media, with 19 followers on Twitter and 23 on Facebook. His only social media mention is from a student blogger who wondered why Norm T. Navel has a bellybutton.
According to a history released concurrent with his creation, Norm is rooted in history – and controversy.
The history holds that, in 1973, the Norman navel orange was created as a cultivar of the Parent Washington navel – the SoCal-friendly orange that led to the California Citrus Belt. The Norman orange had extremely high Vitamin C levels, an attractive skin tone, and extra sweet taste, the history boasts. UCR had created the perfect navel orange.
Proud UCR faculty, staff, and students used the occasion to represent the campus’s rich citrus history, which dates to 1907, adopting Norm T. (the "T" is for "The") Navel as a mascot who was grandly indoctrinated into all aspects of campus life.
“The mascot Norm the navel was a personification of the real variety planted in the UCR Citrus Variety Collection, the world’s most diverse living collection of citrus and related varieties and a resource for the Citrus Experiment Station since 1910,” according to “The Story of Norm T. Navel,” a history provided by Plumley.
Alas, a protracted legal kerfuffle with another university ensued, from which UCR emerged triumphantly with the Norman orange patent.
But there is a caveat to that history. It is a Big Lie, of the non-election variety. “It’s all made up,” said Plumley, UCR’s retired, longtime associate vice chancellor of Auxiliary Services. “Gotta have a good backstory.” There is no Norman orange, no 1973 born-on date.
The faux history – along with the real-though-not-official mascot– was the brainchild 16 years ago of Plumley, then-Student Affairs Marketing and Communications Director Pat Daly and then-Registrar Elizabeth Bennett. Norm’s actual birthdate was in 2006; he was created as an emissary for the Residence Hall Association and Residence Life.
Plumley, who has inhabited The Orange, said Norm 1.0 was too wide, and couldn’t fit easily through doorways. The, er, norm for subsequent orange costumes has been a lesser circumference.
In an introductory letter to campus several years ago, Norm 3.0 assumed a decidedly apologetic posture to UCR’s circa-1954 official campus mascot, Scotty the bear.
“I in no way want to overshadow, compete with, or otherwise devalue any of our campus traditions or icons,” the deferential orange wrote to Residence Hall Association and Residence Life staffers, alerting them to his availability for promotions.
Asked to comment on Norm, Scotty-bear issued a statement through his handlers. “He’s adorable,” Scotty said, in what is assumed to be a non-condescending bear-tone.
“I like to joke with Norm that I was the mascot first, even though he’s technically older,” Scotty said in the statement, referencing the university’s early 1900s incarnation as the Citrus Experiment Station. “It’s all in good fun.”
Jeff Girod casts some doubt on inter-mascot kumbaya. Girod, the director of marketing and communications for CHASS and president of UCR’s Staff Assembly, appears in a rare photograph of the two mascots together, in which he stands between them. The photograph is the feature image for this story.
“I did my best to keep things light during the photo shoot,” Girod said. “But as everyone knows, bears and anthropomorphic shirtless oranges in flip flops are mortal enemies.”
“Norm may have been playing dead,” he added. “He’s a hard orange to read.”
Tracy Kahn is an expert on oranges and Norms. She is the curator of UCR’s Citrus Variety Collection, and is married to a Norm (Norm Ellstrand, a UCR professor).
Not surprisingly, Kahn prefers the orange mascot to the official one. Scotty, she said, “has gotten meaner looking over the years. He was really quite cute and cuddly before.”
A new Norm costume was stitched – complete with bellybutton - before Plumley’s June 2020 retirement. And Norm recently made his first post-pandemic appearance, not live, but in a promotional video. He is still attached to the Residence Hall Association and Residence Life.
“The good news is Norm has not ‘disappeared.’ He is very cautious of COVID and has been social distancing,” said Christine Bender, director of Residence Life.
There are no official plans for an official appearance; Bender hinted at a spring campus cameo. But then, there has never been anything official about Norm - neither his appearance, nor his appearances.