DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Just in front of a garden at the Conklin Davis Center for the Visually Impaired in Daytona Beach, Florida, recently, Brian Norton raised his right hand and swore an oath to truth and honor.
It was the end of a decades-long journey to hell and back and, at age 72, a new beginning. Norton, a former lawyer who lost his sight, then his way and eventually his law license, was readmitted to the Florida Bar in a short ceremony officiated Dec. 17 by Volusia County Judge Bryan Feigenbaum.
Norton was surrounded by people who helped him regain his life’s purpose, including his wife, Earline Outman, who leads the nursing team at the Conklin Davis Center. These were also people who left inspired by Norton and his story.
“It’s really amazing what you’ve done. You’re going to be a great addition to the bar,” Feigenbaum said. “I know you’re going to serve honorably, any way you can.”
From Florida to Harvard and back
Brian Norton was the son of a world-renown ophthalmologist at the University of Miami. He made his way to Harvard and moved back to Gainesville for law school. He graduated from the University of Florida in 1974 and worked as a lawyer.
When Brian Norton was just 20, his eldest son, Mike, was born.
“He was a young dad. For roughly the first 10 years of my life, he was in law school and his first couple of jobs as a lawyer,” Mike Norton said. “Very idealistic. He wanted to right the wrongs … so he was a great inspiration for me in terms of his love of learning, his ideals and his sense of humor, just really enjoying making people smile and making people happy.”
But retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disease, eroded his ability to see. He fought it, giving up driving in 1981, but by 1995, his sight was completely gone. He retired from the law, started drinking more heavily and experienced two divorces before the death of his third wife.
His son, Mike, called this a “dark period” that he hoped would be a phase he would be able to leave behind him. But it continued for years and eventually led to Norton being stripped of his membership in the Florida Bar.
“At some point, I really lost any kind of hope that it would end well,” Mike Norton said. “But 10 years ago, there was a big change… it’s been really a miraculous recovery.”
‘One day at a time’
Brian Norton worked his way through Alcoholics Anonymous and found himself healing, physically and spiritually.
“You do it one day at a time,” Brian Norton said. “You try to do what is useful and productive each day and not get discouraged. And a year later, you look back … and you say, ‘God, look at all of the things I have done.’ But each time you come up to a frustration, you just kind of keep on trying to do it and go on, and that’s what I hope that the students here learn, to be motivated and have friends who motivate them to just become really more independent, useful members of society.”
A big part of his professional revival started when he moved to Daytona Beach and fought his way into the Division of Blind Services rehabilitation program, then later the Conklin Davis Center, where he learned how to use new technologies that allowed him to read, write and email — skills that would allow him to enter the paralegal studies program at Daytona State College.
Julia Savage, a former fellow student with Norton at the Division of Blind Services, said he helped inspire her to return to the workforce. She, too suffered from retinitis pigmentosa, losing her sight in 2001 and forcing her from her work.
“If there was ever a negative situation a challenging situation, Brian always looked at the positive,” Savage said.
He would say: “We can do this. … You can do this.”
She now works as a legal secretary for the Brevard County Clerk of Courts.
“Like Brian says, it’s never too late to go back to school,” she said.
Norton credited others at Daytona State College with helping him file the bar application, which he said was “not accessible” for a blind person.
Helping others on the way to independence
The journey to redemption has also given him a new mission. The challenges he faced — of inspiration, technology and accessibility — were more than mountains for him to climb. They are experiences that will inform his work going forward.
“Blind people have a difficult time with some of the ways that the internet is set up and accessible to them,” he said, “but it also has a tremendous opportunity to make blind people equal in the workforce … There are new technological instruments and software and lots of things coming up which are really a wonderful thing for somebody in the 21st century that really were not accessible for somebody in the 20th century.”
Ronee Silverman, CEO/president of the Conklin Davis Center, said he’s an inspiration but also representative of many of the students who move through the center’s program.
“Brian has all of the technology now at his fingertips that he needs to be a successful attorney, so the agency, all of us, we’re very proud of Brian and all of our staff to make that happen.”
His son, Mike, said his father’s renaissance started with his attitude.
“He’s been able to recapture that sense of idealism and purpose in life that I saw and had such an influence on me as a child,” Mike Norton said. “He’s continuing to inspire me in my life and I’m really proud of him.”