White-Water Adventures With The Grandfather Of Type… (from the Bill Hill Archives)

Robert Norton, The Grandfather of Type, with typical mischievous smile
(photo © Gerald Giampa
My first encounter with Robert Norton was surreal. It was 1994, and I was working in Edinburgh, Scotland, for Aldus Europe Limited – the European subsidiary of Seattle-based Aldus Corporation, which I’d helped get started back in 1986.

I came back into the office after a few days’ vacation, and there were three voicemail messages for me – all identical. A plummy English voice said, “This is Robert Norton at Microsoft. We have a job we think you should be doing. Can you give us a call, please?”

I called Robert, and he explained that Microsoft needed someone to run its Typography group in Redmond, Washington, in which he worked. Was I interested, and could I come over for interviews? He met me for dinner the night before my infamous two-day Microsoft interview loop…

Robert was much larger than life. He was one of the key people behind Microsoft’s Windows 3.1 core fonts, which established a new standard in on-screen readability of text when they were revealed to the world in 1991.

To cut a long story short, I got the job – and became Robert’s “manager” (a non sequiteur, if ever there was). It was a job which was mostly admirer, but also equal parts cat-herder, elephant-wrangler, incredulous spectator, and occasionally terrified participant…

Robert was almost certainly Microsoft’s oldest employee at the time – a huge man, with a mischievous sense of humor and an adventurous spirit undimmed by age. He’d sailed from London to Jamaica, and I heard he had broken his ankle hang-gliding at the age of 67.

When he was poking fun at me – and because I knew he’d always take the bait – I used to call him The Grandfather of Type (anyone less like a staid old grandfather would be hard to imagine).

The only clue that he was not always in the best of health would be that he’d turn up for work in the morning still wearing a hospital identity band, having gone to the emergency room where he’d spent the night hooked up to a drip and an ECG machine.

Lunch with Robert was an adventure. He’d insist on driving. You’d buckle up, check the belt was as tight as possible, and close your eyes. On one occasion, we were planning to have lunch at a Thai restaurant in Redmond. Robert drove, in his white Range Rover. But he missed his turn, and found himself on the wrong side of a railroad track and a belt of landscaping. I often wonder what the landscapers thought of the two-foot-deep ruts that ran for a hundred yards until they petered out at the edge of the tracks (which we bounced over). A 4×4 in Robert’s hands was more a Free-Range Rover…

Robert sharing a joke with Matthew Carter

Robert knew we’d bought a beautiful piece of land on the Tolt River, not far from Redmond.”I’d love to come up and see it. I’ll bring my canoe”.
I should have known better. I’d heard rumors…

Robert duly arrived, with a huge three-man canoe he’d bought in some garage sale, lashed to the roof of a minivan.

Our house sits a couple of hundred yards from the river. But the path leading to it goes down a winding, uneven, steeply-sloping and muddy former logging trail which is undrivable. Robert and I managed to manhandle his huge canoe down to the water. It was April or May, the river was still cold with snow-melt, but on our property it was divided by an island. Most of the flow went the other side; our side was not very deep – four or five feet at most, with a fairly gentle current.

Robert and I and my son Eldon – who was perhaps six years old at the time – paddled around for a while until we’d exhausted the limited pleasures of that 400-yard stretch of river.

“I don’t fancy trying to haul the canoe back up the hill,” said Robert. “Why don’t you and I paddle it down to the bridge at Carnation (about two miles away), and Tanya can meet us there in the car?”

No-one had ever told me details about Robert’s adventures. (I think the game was to provide Robert with fresh victims first, then tell them afterwards – you got better stories that way). I assumed that a man who’d sailed a yacht from London to Jamaica knew what he was doing in a canoe. But something made me hand my wallet, car keys and all the other contents of my pockets to Tanya before we set off…

The first stretch wasn’t too bad, except for the branch sticking out of the log-jam, which nearly swept us both into the water when the current sucked us underneath it. I saw Robert disappear beneath a thick pile of cedar fronds; I had enough warning to duck.

Then we reached the part of the river where the two separate flows around the island merged back together, and we learned why the native Snoqualmie people called the river Toltue – which means “Swift Water”…

We ran down a small section of ripples, and the canoe grounded right at the top of a steep section of white water, at the end of which it took a sharp bend to the left, and seemed to be fast-flowing but level after that.

“What do you think?” I asked apprehensively. “It looks fine,” said Robert.

We both pushed hard with our paddles. The canoe took off like a rocket down the white water, banked sharply at the bend and turned upside down, pitching us both into the river. I was trapped underneath, jammed by the current between it and a large rock, but with my head above water and able to breathe. I couldn’t see Robert.

I frantically struggled out of the grip of the current, ducked under the hull and spotted Robert disappearing downstream, floating backwards and blowing like a breaching whale (luckily, we were both wearing lifejackets).

The one thought running through my head was what I’d say next day to my boss at Microsoft – Steve Shaiman. “Oh, no! I’ve lost the Grandfather of Type!”

It was about then I realized, first of all how cold the water was, and second that there was a woman frantically jumping up and down on the deck of her house overlooking the river, shouting, “You guys are crazy! That water was snow a couple of hours ago! A woman drowned there, just last week!”

The current was a bit slower downstream. Robert managed to beach himself on the wrong side of the river, then waded back. He was blue with cold, covered in bruises and small cuts – and otherwise totally unconcerned. Just another boating adventure…

He was persuaded by the couple who owned the house into a hot shower and dry clothes. Next day he went back and retrieved the fiberglass canoe, which was broken-up enough that it would never make another trip.

I told the story in the office next day. Then colleagues would come over and say, “Did you hear about the time Robert…”

My former colleague George Moore tells the story of how he went for a rowing-trip with Robert on Lake Washington – in Robert’s inflatable dinghy, which began to rapidly deflate while they were out in the middle of the lake. George spent the return trip, red-faced, with his mouth glued to the inflation-valve, trying desperately to keep the craft inflated enough to make the shore…

Robert Norton 1929-2001. Never forgotten.


One thought on “White-Water Adventures With The Grandfather Of Type… (from the Bill Hill Archives)

  1. Anonymous

    We all still miss him terribly, could use having him around, but he still provides great incentive to eat up, drink up and never give up!Steve Shaiman


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