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Meet the Gaston County man who is the oldest living ham radio operator in the U.S.

Oscar Norris circa the 1960s.

Gaston County resident Oscar Norris, also known by his call sign W4OXH, is turning 106 on Sept. 25.

Norris is not only the oldest living amateur radio operator in North Carolina, but according to information from the American Radio Relay League he is also the oldest living operator in the United States.

The Gaston County Amateur Radio Society and the Gaston Radio Club, both of which Norris is a long-time member, have come together to host a special airwave event for him from Sept. 20 - Oct. 1.

This event will honor Norris and his life, and will be hosted by operators in three different states, according to Gaston County Amateur Radio Society president Tony Jones.

Both on and off the air, Norris “is one of the most gentle and kind people,” a person could encounter in life, according to fellow amateur radio operator and friend, Mike Harvey.

Oscar and North Carolina

Although he has lived in Gaston County for most of his life, Norris’ story doesn’t start in North Carolina.

Norris was born around Prattville, Alabama, in 1917, according to his nephew, Mack Johnson.

Norris, his parents, and his nine siblings relocated to Gaston County in the 1920s, Johnson said.

Oscar Norris and his brother Clifford together in 2018. Clifford passed away in 2019 at the age of 93.

At that time, the interstate did not yet exist.

According to Jones, Norris shared with him that he and his family had piled into three Model T cars, and took back roads the whole way to Gaston County, a drive that took them three days in total.

Today, the drive from Prattville to Gastonia could take as little as two and a half hours, according to Google maps.Norris went on to work at Cramerton Mills in his early '20s.

The textile mill was, “responsible for making Army khaki for soldiers during WWII,” according to information from the Gaston County Public Library.

During his time at Cramerton Mills, which coincided with WWII, Norris lost his eyesight to an eye infection.

Because of the war efforts, “a lot of antibiotics were going overseas,” Johnson said.

The lack of access to medication is believed to be the cause of Norris’ blindness, according to Johnson.

Cramerton Mills did not let Norris go despite his loss of eyesight.

The mill found something else for him to do, and he continued to work there for several years after that, Johnson said.

Oscar Norris working at Cramerton Mills shortly after losing his eyesight.

“A lot of people have told me Oscar was their first contact on air,” Harvey said. “I can’t count how many people have told me that.”

Norris is what the amateur radio operators would call an Elmer, according to Harvey.

An Elmer is someone who teaches others how to operate a ham radio.

When Tony Jones met Norris for the first time at 14-years-old, “he handed me a book and said, ‘get your ham radio license,’” Jones said.

Mike Harvey met Norris for the first time on the air, where Norris was one of his first contacts.

According to Harvey, most people on the air didn’t know about Norris’ blindness because he could offer directions through Gaston County with amazing accuracy.

Norris frequently used high frequency and DMR waves to talk with people all over the world.

When he went to live at Courtland Terrace, an assisted living facility in Gastonia, they even allowed Norris to put up an antenna, so he could continue talking to people on the air.

Oscar Norris circa the late 1950s.

Just ham radio

According to Jones, amateur radio is not a dying hobby.

When Norris first got into ham radio, hams (as some amateur radio operators call themselves) were required to learn Morse code to obtain a license.

However, the FCC no longer requires a ham to know Morse code in order to get a license.

Without that requirement, many new ham radio operators have joined the airwaves over the years, Jones said.

Harvey, who largely uses Morse code and does long distance operations, said that when he reaches out, “It’s just a bunch of other old guys doing the same thing, drinking their coffee.”

Local amateur radio operators also provide services to their communities, according to Jones.

Local ham radio societies help create weather alerts in the event of a tornado warning or other severe weather event, help with local events like parades, and can also use their radios without electricity, allowing them to radio for help in catastrophic events.

Just Oscar

Oscar was married in 1960 to his wife, Isabel Norris, who passed away in the '80s, according to Johnson.

In addition to his passion for ham radio, Norris also loved to work on bikes and listen to Atlanta Braves games.

Norris ran a bike shop for many years, and even after becoming blind, he could disassemble and perfectly repair bicycles, Jones said.

Oscar Norris at his 104th birthday party in 2021.

Norris’ family and friends plan to celebrate his 106th birthday at a party on Saturday, Sept. 23.


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