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  • Writer's pictureBeltsville News

Obituary: Norris, Karl Howard

Karl Howard Norris, a resident of Beltsville for 65 years, passed away peacefully in Alexandria, VA, on July 17 following a brief illness. He was 98 years of age.

Karl and his young wife Maxine Evelyn Norris (nee Thomas) moved to Beltsville from Oak Park, IL, in 1950, when Karl took up a post as agricultural engineer at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). His assignment and his ambition were to develop new, automated, precise, nondestructive, electronics-based instruments and methods for assessing the quality of agricultural products. Techniques in routine use at the time were labor-intensive, imprecise, and/or invasive; hence, they were costly to both producers and consumers.

Together with his BARC colleagues, Karl embarked on a long series of advances that eventually would revolutionize aspects of the food and grain industries, provide a foundation for similar applications in medicine, and gain him international renown. His early work focused on sorting eggs by color and on detecting interior defects in eggs, fruits, and vegetables by measuring the reflectance and transmission, respectively, of light waves. These techniques would be extended over time to include measurements of the fat, moisture, and protein contained in grains, oilseeds, fruits, vegetables, and meats, and of other important qualities of pharmaceuticals and petrochemicals.

Karl’s truly groundbreaking studies lay in the detection and analysis of near-infrared (NIR) light, especially in reflectance from the objects he investigated. Spectroscopists had long regarded unraveling the characteristic NIR lines of complex substances as a hopeless endeavor lacking practical application. Karl was not a spectroscopist and did not realize the futility of the effort, so he stubbornly but good-naturedly proceeded to demonstrate that the impossible was, in fact, possible! For his achievements in NIR instrumentation and methodology, Karl would become known as the “father of near-infrared spectroscopy,” be inducted (1980) into the National Academy of Engineering, and see the eponymous international Karl H. Norris Award in Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (2003) established in his honor, among many other awards and accolades.

Karl was known for his gentle spirit, personal warmth, and generous provision of encouragement and insight to his professional peers and junior colleagues alike. These characteristics also were evident in his personal roles in the life of the Beltsville community.

Soon after they moved to Maryland, Karl and Maxine became members of Emmanuel United Methodist Church (EUMC). Maxine sang in the choir; Karl was a regular Sunday-morning usher and served on numerous church committees. In particular, he was a member of the Board of Trustees that oversaw the finance and construction (1957-1961) of the current church building. Karl and Maxine remained members of EUMC to the ends of their lives.

Along with other civic leaders, in 1967 Karl became a founding member of the Beltsville Rotary Club, which was affiliated with the philanthropic organization Rotary International. He served the club as an officer on several occasions, was twice honored as a Paul Harris Fellow for his charitable works, and was recognized for his 48 years of service in 2015.

Karl served stints as president of the Beltsville Citizens Association and of the Parent Teacher Association at local schools attended by his children. He also was a volunteer leader with the Boy Scouts of America.

As hobbies, Karl enjoyed bowling, fishing, photography, and card games. He was a devoted member of a Friday-night poker group of Beltsville friends for many years.

Karl and Maxine moved into Sunrise at Mount Vernon assisted living in Alexandria in early 2016 when residing alone in their multistory Beltsville home was no longer feasible. They found a welcoming community of new neighbors there, very near their daughter and son-in-law when they needed assistance.

Maxine predeceased Karl by almost two years on 28 August 2017. He is survived by a daughter, Deborah Norris DeVore; a son, Mark Norris; two grandsons, Justin D’Amato and David Norris; three great-grandsons, Ian, Gannon, and Liam D’Amato; a brother; a sister; a son-in-law; a granddaughter-in-law; and numerous nephews and nieces.

In recognition of Karl’s achievements on behalf of the USDA, the nation’s flag was flown at half-staff on 13 August 2019 at Agricultural Research Service facilities nationwide including, most appropriately, BARC.

A Service of Remembrance will be held in Karl’s memory at noon on 5 October 2019 at Emmanuel UMC, 11416 Cedar Lane, Beltsville MD 20705. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial donations be sent to the Arthritis Foundation, a favorite charity of his due to Maxine’s struggles with the disease.

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