By Al Blanton
“Don’t let anyone look down upon you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” 1 Timothy 4:12
It is morning still and the droves have yet to arrive at Bernard’s Store for Men. A half pot of coffee is snoring in the back as Jack Norris emerges. The music, which he no longer notices, plays weakly in the background.
Today, Jack is tieless, wearing an open-collar plaid button down and slacks. Not his usual couture. A beard, worn unswervingly throughout the winter, jackets his milky, angular face. His gait is a smooth saunter—like Andy Dufresne across the prison yard—and if it seems that Jack has something on his mind, that’s probably because he does.
Any Joe off the street might easily dismiss Jack upon initial meeting. Jack is quiet, young, and unassuming. He doesn’t call attention to himself or cause any kind of ruckus. He doesn’t proffer a big story. He’s not gregarious or super social—at least, in a business setting around folks over double his age. But anyone who takes the time to talk to this young man will soon discover that within Jack Norris is a profound depth of character, a selfless regard for his fellow man, and a deep, battle-tested faith that marches like armies through the years.
Born in Farmstead, Jack grew up in a Christian home where family and faith were important considerations. He lived with both parents, two brothers, and bedrock values. An added bonus was that Jack enjoyed the pleasantries of extended family, as his grandparents, remarkable influences on his growing up, lived next door. “There was a big emphasis on the Bible, religion, and Christianity,” Jack says. “It shaped who I was, and who I became.”
Starting in the eighth grade, Jack began giving sermons at church competitions held at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville. “One of my biggest fears was public speaking,” Jack says. “That was beat out of me at an early age.”
When Jack approached the podium for his first sermon, he was nervous as a cat. He trembled through the first few minutes, but then disaster struck. “I dropped my speech,” he says. “It was in the middle of the speech. I thought the world was coming to an end.”
But outside of a few podium blunders, Jack’s boyhood was idyllic. The middle child, Jack loved spending time outdoors and playing sports with his two brothers, Jake and Logan. “I started playing basketball at age four. I had a little tikes goal in the basement, and I was a baller,” Jack jokes.
Jack continued to play basketball throughout the tenth grade, when he decided to hang up his sneakers for a chance to go to work. Through the co-op program at Walker High School, Jack snagged a job at Bernard’s Store for Men, placing his loafer in the fresh footprint of his brother, Jake, who worked at the store before moving off to college.
But Jack didn’t come to Bernard’s because he loved clothes. He came because he needed the money. “I kept thinking I needed the gas money,” Jack relates. “I didn’t want to go out on dates and be broke.”
Thrust into the machinations of the men’s clothing industry, Jack was awkward, shy, and green. He wouldn’t have known a side vent from a center vent, had it hit him in the face. As a result, he puttered through sales. A shirt here, pair of slacks there. “I was new, and I hadn’t worked with the public before,” Jack says. “I didn’t really want to talk anyone.”
Luckily for Jack, he was learning under the Rock Star of the men’s clothing industry, Rusty Richardson. As Jack began to pick up on the business, he matured through Trial by Public, learning a terrific art form under Rusty’s tutelage: how to treat people.
“Rusty taught me that if someone walks in front door with pair of overalls, you treat them the same as the person who walks in in a three-piece suit,” Jack says.
Jack initially found gratification in these “little successes.” “Little successes are very important,” he says. “If you don’t appreciate them, you can get really depressed.”
Good thing, because it would be months before he bagged the elephant.
In the men’s clothing business, the sale of a suit is the coup de grace of sales. It is often the most expensive item in the store, and the most coveted. Men are most particular about their suits, and Jack would have to fight several smaller bouts before stepping into that arena.
But eventually the day came, and Jack wrote up his first “big ticket” purchase. “Rusty gave me a pat on the back when I sold my first suit,” Jack says. “It is the pinnacle of business—I mean, a suit is a suit. It’s the Holy Grail of product. I felt ecstatic.”
Over time, Jack gained confidence in his abilities as Rusty brought him along like he would a young thoroughbred. Jack liked working at Bernard’s and enjoyed making friends with customers. He was getting it. But as high school graduation approached, Jack had to make a decision about his future. He could stay in Jasper, go to school at the local junior college and work for Rusty part-time, or he could take a scholarship offer from a school in Tennessee. Jack eventually chose the latter, and in the fall of 2012, Jack enrolled at Freed-Hardeman University, just outside of Jackson, Tennessee.
Jack assimilated quickly at the school, made friends, and even took part in a few hijinks at the dormitory. While on semester break, Jack came back home and worked at the store. Thanksgiving. Christmas. Spring Break. But over the course of a year, Jack began to grow weary of being away from home. Even with a scholarship, school debt was mounting, and Jack began to calculate the eventual balance for a four-year commitment—a numeral north of $75,000.
Jack wrestled with his decision to put Tennessee in his rearview or gut it out for three more years. During this time, he devoted great chunks of time to prayer.
In the summer of 2013, Jack came home. But Jack was not prepared for the trial that awaited him like a roaring lion.
Still tottering from his exodus from university life, Jack had reached a crossing. He was back at Bernard’s full-time but was listless and searching. An interior war raged. His thoughts rambled to the meaning of life and his purpose on this earth. He began to doubt everything he’d been taught, and set out on a spiritual quest that he hoped might liberate him from the bondage of religion and uncertainty.
Because of his Christian roots, Jack had always been intrigued with First Century history. During this time of searching, he began to dive deeper into this era, sponging up several secular, scholarly works that dismissed the authenticity of the Gospel, while conveniently ignoring those that pointed to its veracity. “I only looked at one side,” he says. “On my quest to become open-minded, I actually became closed-minded. I had completely thrown out anything that might come back to the Cross.”
The candle of Jack’s faith was reduced to a flicker. He was burned out, spent, and faith-weary. Moving dangerously close to agnosticism, Jack’s internal fury continued as he pondered the “big questions” of life: Is there such thing as truth? What do I believe about the universe? About God?
For the first time in his life, he was able to step out of the box of religion and think for himself. But there was a risk in all of this. If the Gospel were untrue, indeed he would be throwing away the very fabric of faith that had shaped him and made him the man he was for twenty-plus years.
As Jack continued on his journey to truth, something struck him. As he was studying the life of the disciples, Jack discovered that all or nearly all of Jesus’s disciples died a horrific death. Jack surmised that these men would not have gone to their death for something they had made up. They would not have been crucified for fiction. Indeed, they were so convinced of Jesus’s reality that they were willing to die to salvage his story.
“As for the disciples, we have every reason to believe they existed,” Jack says. “These men existed and they all died for their faith.”
Because of these men, because they were willing to die for the story, the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been shared the world over. And somehow, through the cruel and beautiful corridors of time, across centuries and obstacles, that story miraculously reached Jack Norris, who was free to accept or reject the notion that Christ died for the sins of mankind, was resurrected, and now sits at the right hand of God the Father to judge the quick and the dead.
Our spiritual journeys sometimes go through the detours of doubt. But the true seekers, the true seekers find. For Jack Norris, his faith journey led him away from the Cross and then back again. Now his faith is stronger than ever.
“My faith not only defines me, it defines who I want to become,” Jack says. “I’m not there yet, but it’s a good goal. I’m in need of God’s grace every day. I think it’s a refining process. He helps me through life, to filter through the lies and arrive at truth. I’ve just got to keep trusting, studying, praying, and growing. God never fails me.”
Rusty’s prized lieutenant has been at Bernard’s five years now, and it would be hard to imagine the store without Jack. Jack has become Rusty’s right-hand man, his vice-president, his sidekick. He keeps the machine running if Rusty and his wife Elizabeth want to slip off for a weekend in the Florida panhandle, or an afternoon at the lake, if the weather agrees. Jack believes that God has installed him in this position, and he’s glad he’s found his way home. “I believe God led me to Bernard’s to move out of boyhood into manhood,” Jack says. “I believe He brought me into the store to learn about life from an amazing, Godly man in Rusty, and to be encouraged by amazing co-workers. I also believe he led to Bernard’s to have a ‘safe haven’ growing up during high school and junior college. A safe haven to grow into a man, even during storms and trials of life.”
William Shakespeare once wrote, “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”
Faith is life’s great attempt at good. It is the belief that something good happened to us. It is the hope that something good will happen to us, that there is life beyond the dusty grave.
“The cornerstone of the Christian faith is the resurrection,” Jack says, “and I believe with all my heart that the tomb was empty.”
This brave young man, once a skeptic, looked doubt in the face and had the courage to face his deepest fear: that this life means nothing. He stood on the point and looked out to the endless rolling hills of doubt, where questions led to more questions but never to hope. He surmised that even then, it all came back to faith. Faith in something, or faith in nothing.
And at this crossroads, Jack chose to believe. B
Photos by Al Blanton.
Al Blanton is a biographer who focuses on profiles of inspirational men and women.