Robert Norris had a close friendship with John Wayne and played college football for Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, but the Colorado rancher was an icon in his own right.

“I remember being a kid going through airports and out in public people used to come up and ask him for his autograph or would want to buy him lunch,” Norris’ son Bobby Norris said.

Former Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell said Norris embodied the “spirit of the West.” Norris purchased the T-Cross brand for $50, making him the owner of the oldest registered brand in Colorado. In the mid-1970s, he served as president of the Colorado State Fair Commission. In 2015, Norris was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners.

“Being his son or his daughter, you were kind of raised on horseback,” Bobby Norris said. “You were given every opportunity to get involved as you wanted to and we all did to some degree in our lives. It’s a tradition that’s being carried on for sure.”

Norris, television’s first “Marlboro Man,” appeared on the cigarette company’s advertisements for over a decade. He fell into the role after the company needed an authentic cowboy, according to Bobby Norris.

“They had all these models, these big square-jawed guys,” Norris said. “They looked good when they were sitting on a horse and the horse wasn’t moving, but this was live TV… None of them could ride and one of them almost got drug to death and that’s when they decided they needed to find somebody that was a real cowboy that knew what he was doing.”

Born April 10, 1929, in Illinois, Norris was raised on his father Lester Norris' farm and studied agriculture at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. In 1954, Norris moved to Colorado and started a T-Cross Ranch near Fort Collins.

Norris later began a ranch in Guffey, but after two harsh winters, Norris realized he was “on the wrong side of the mountain” and ventured east of Pikes Peak to T-Cross’ current location headquartered between Pueblo and El Paso counties.

“The snowfall was just more than anybody wanted to deal with,” he said. “So that’s when he moved to the Front Range. It’s kind of hard to feed your cows when you can’t find them in a blizzard.”

In his 90-year life, Norris held several titles including president of the American Quarter Horse Association, a board member of the National Cattlemen’s Association, a trustee for the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and the Colorado Board of Agriculture.

“He was always very hands-on and very involved,” Norris said. “He wasn’t one of these guys to sit back and just let things unfold… He always was just kind of in the thick of things.”

jbartolo@chieftain.com

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