The football player and librarian: Karl Van Norman
Karl Van Norman, for whom the football field at Mansfield University is named, was a football standout for Mansfield Normal School between 1904 and 1906. He made school history on the field, but he remains as well-known in Mansfield for much different contributions.
Karl was the son of Harvey and Cora Van Norman, who had family roots in Lawrenceville, but lived in Mansfield. Both of his parents were teachers, having taught in Lawrenceville in the 1880s. For many years, Harvey held the distinction of having been the longest serving professor at Mansfield, teaching English and math. Harvey was a founder of the Mansfield Free Public Library and later served as town librarian, a job that Karl would later take. Karl’s maternal grandfather, Augustus Greener, was a German immigrant, who started a famous piano store in Elmira, N.Y.
As one of the “Normal Boys,” Karl Van Norman played football and started on the 1904, 1905, and 1906 teams. Over that period, the Mountaineers amassed a record of 16-3-1. Karl was the starting quarterback in the 1906 season and led the Mountaineers to a 7-1 record. He threw the first forward pass, after that play was legalized, to Ellwood “Doc” Fenton. Fenton later went on to fame as a quarterback at LSU. The Mounties lost the first game of 1906 to Bucknell 0-5. After that, Mansfield beat teams from Lock Haven, Jersey Shore, Dickinson Seminary (now Lycoming College), Alfred, Elmira Free Academy, Cook Academy, and Williamsport by a combined score of 114-10.
Following graduation, Van Norman continued his association with the Mansfield football team for the next 50 years, serving as graduate manager, coach, and sports information director. He kept football records for Mansfield for many years. Van Norman was given credit by the Wellsboro Gazette as far back as 1935 for recognizing the significance of the first night football game, which took place at Smythe Park in 1892. Van Norman saw the game as a child. That event has been celebrated in Mansfield since 1992. In 1941, he wrote the history of the first 50 years of football at Mansfield for the Gazette.
During the 1937 season, Van Norman scheduled seven games, according to newspaper records. Like his senior season, the Mountaineers were shutout 0-38 by St. Thomas. The Mountaineers went on to win the next five games and headed into a home game with undefeated Lock Haven. Unfortunately, a huge flood hit Tioga County that day and Smythe Park, where the game was to be played, was flooded. The game was cancelled and Lock Haven went on to win the conference championship. The following year, Mansfield was named state college champions, only giving up two points (to Millersville) all season.
However, coaching and managing was only part-time work and Van Norman found himself in the blossoming movie theater business. Today, there are no movie theaters in Mansfield, but Van Norman gets the credit for showing the first “talkie” in Mansfield, though there are no records naming that first movie.
Before 1888, many of the theatrical productions in Mansfield were held in the third floor of the bank block. Between 1888 and 1889, the Opera House was built on the Northeast corner of Main and Wellsboro Streets. The same space was called the Allen Block, and owned by Prof. Fordyce Allen and used for the Orphan’s School and various other ventures, including briefly housing the local library. Van Norman began his career as an usher at the Opera House while attending Mansfield Normal School. The Opera House provided space for performing arts and showed the town its first motion picture. The Opera House burned in 1913. The present building houses several businesses and has apartments upstairs.
Van Norman would later become the pianist at a new venue called the Theatorium. The theater was built by Ed Saks and Charles Miller in 1907 on Hoarde Alley. His obituary notes that the theater was started in a barn. Van Norman was eventually able to purchase the theater and ran it until it, too, burned in 1916.
Mansfield’s best known theater was built that same year by WA McCausland and EG Cornwell. The theater was first called “The Star” and later dubbed “The Twain.” Van Norman got work at The Star and managed the theater until 1933. In 1929, the theater showed the first “talkie” in Mansfield.
Karl changed his career in the late 1920s. His father, Harvey, who had been one of the founders of the Mansfield Free Public Library and its librarian, passed away in 1927. The board offered the job to his son and Karl served in that capacity until he passed away in 1956. At one point during the 1930s, as the Great Depression devastated the economy, Karl volunteered his services in order to keep the library open. In November 1936, the borough council agreed to impose a property tax levy to support the library’s operations.
Van Norman married Marian Greener June 21, 1910. She graduated from Mansfield in 1906 from the music and arts department. An accomplished violinist, Marian taught music at the Normal School until her marriage. The couple had three daughters and seven grandchildren. Their second daughter, Pauline, represented Mansfield in the first Laurel Festival in Wellsboro.
Karl was active in the Alumni Association, Sons of the American Revolution, and St. James Episcopal Church.
Writer’s note: The Mansfield Public Library was officially founded in 1901 and moved into its present location in 1911. The library produced a history of its activities in 2001 and includes a history of the work of people like Harvey and Karl Van Norman, Edmund Retan (Retan Center), W.R. Longstreet, W.W. Allen, F.B. Van Kuren, Leon Channell, J.S. Elliott, Prof. William Crockett, Josheph S. Hoarde, and the first librarian Stella May Allen (daughter of Fordyce Allen).