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Big Fred’s finest hour

Since Potsdam State was a small school, I must’ve seen Fred Norris Jr. around, but I never took notice of him till I saw him in a school play. And then, take notice I did!

The play was The Music Man and he had the lead as Professor Harold Hill, a personable, persuasive, and apparently-conscienceless hustler.

Fred was not only good in the role — he was brilliant. Little did I know at the time, he wasn’t playing a role; he was playing himself. He was a 100 percent, irredeemable con man.

He came by it naturally. His father, was a lifelong flim-flam man known as Big Fred (Fred Jr., being known, much to his chagrin, as Little Fred). Someone who knew Big Fred way back when, summed him up crudely but accurately, saying “He’d steal the ring off a dead pope … if he hadda saw off the finger to do it.”

I don’t know the length and breadth of Big Fred’s scams (and probably neither did the IRS, FBI or Treasury Department) but a partial list includes counterfeit Irish Sweepstakes tickets, fake olive oil, bogus gold and uranium stocks, and nonexistent asbestos disposal.

His final scam was his most spectacular. Getting long in the tooth and realizing the end of his hustling days were at hand, he decided to go for The Big One. Which he had to, since old con people can’t look forward to their pensions, Social Security and medical plans.

He ran a Ponzi scheme. Ostensibly, investors were buying stock in a company that made parts for army rifles – a source of unlimited income. In reality, in true Ponzi fashion, there was no company, no stock, no nuttin except the early investors getting returns from the money put in by the later investors. And, again in true Ponzi fashion, the scheme collapsed. Big Fred figured that by the time it did, he’d be set for life, and he was … but not the way he’d planned.

He’d made millions in his scam since he’d hustled fabulously rich people. Unfortunately, the fabulously rich are also the fabulously connected, and a lot of the peeps BF burned had a lot of connections in the legal system. Unsurprisingly to everyone but BF, he first got all his assets frozen, then he got them taken away, then he got the book thrown at him. He got a worse sentence than arsonists and serial killers, and in spite of appealing it over and over, he ended up dying in prison.

A humble start …

Big Fred was Little Fred’s role model and object lesson, and from him he formulated his rules for survival:

First, only suckers worked for a living.

Second, telling the truth was an option, not an obligation.

Three, never do anything illegal (or at least nothing very illegal).

Third, don’t sell anything you have to keep in stock.

I found out Fred’s dubious relationship to honesty early on. About halfway through the semester, a bunch of us went out to a local beanery for a fine dining experience — hot dogs, hamburgers, fries, cole slaw, and the like – of course on separate checks. After we’d paid and were on our way back, my roommate Don stopped and said, “Oh no!”

“What is it?” I asked.

“I just realized the waitress didn’t charge me for my shake.”

He turned around and started to walk back.

“Where you going?” asked Fred.

“To the diner,” said Don.

“Why?” said Fred.

“To pay for the milkshake.”

“Hey, they’ll never remember, said Fred. “Screw ’em.”

“That’s not the point,” said Don and kept walking.

I went with him and Fred followed. When we got to the diner, Fred suddenly pushed ahead of us. The waitress came over to us and started to say something but Fred interrupted her.

“I realized you didn’t charge for my friend’s milkshake,” he said, “so I told him we had to come back and pay.”

When Don and I were back at our room, we talked about it.

“Can you believe it?” said Don. “That schmuck took credit for something he told me not to do.”

“Yeah, I believe it,” I said.

“But why?” he said. “We were right there when he did it. He had to know we saw what he did.”

“Of course he knew,” I said. “He just doesn’t care.”

After that, neither Don nor I had anything to do with Fred.

… and a more humble ending

Schoolwork was work to Fred, so he didn’t do it. Thus it was no surprise his academic career ended at the end of his first semester.

I never saw him after then, but my friend Jerry did. Jerry was arguably the nicest guy in the world, so over the years, Fred’d call him when he came through where Jerry lived , and they’d go out to lunch. After Jerry told me this, I asked who paid for the meal and Jerry just smiled and gave a shrug. Anyhow, through Jerry I found out what Fred was up to over the years.

He married often and always to a woman who had a car, a good job, and nice pad. So while he still scammed, he never had to worry about actually making a living. Among his hustles were a meditation instructor, a cheese connoisseur, a children’s photographer, and a life coach. And be it needlessly added, they all flopped, but since he never actually invested much in them – either in time or money — he didn’t lose anything. Besides, he had a secret ace in the hole that was going to put him on Easy Street – forever.

When he was raking in the dough, to impress clients Big Fred bought a fancy-shmancy, sports car. I can’t remember the details; I just remember it was the real deal — a limited edition, custom made, high end number that he’d paid for in cash. After he’d been busted and before he was sent to the Big House, he signed the car over to Little Fred. Then he told him to put the car in storage and wait to sell it, since it would only gain in value. Little Fred did, and it did.

Finally, when he was in his 50s, Little Fred decided to cash in on his treasure.

For all his dishonesty, deficiencies, and failures Big Fred was right-on when it came to the car: It’d cost a fortune 25 years before; now it was worth a bunch of fortunes.

Little Fred put an ad in the Hemmings Motor News. He slapped a big six-figure price on the car, said there’d be no dickering or dawdling around, that it was all cash on the barrelhead, first come, first served. The day Hemmings hit the newsstands, Fred got a call from a famous TV personality. He was in California now and could be in New York tomorrow, cash in hand. All Fred had to do was say yes, which he did.

Bright and early the next day Fred went to DMV to register the car in his name. He filled out the paperwork and handed it to the clerk. She punched a bunch of things in her computer and then looked like the computer had punched her. He eyes widened, her jaw dropped, and she went pale.

“What?” said Fred. “What? What?”

By the time the clerk regained her breath, she told him there were liens on that car. Big liens. Like liens totaling six figures.

Now it was Fred’s turn to look punched … if not gut-shot.

Later that day and for probably the first time in his life, he told the truth. He told the TV guy about the liens. Of course, he had no option.

The TV guy was cool about it, since he wanted the car. So he wrote a check for Fred’s asking price, which Fred promptly deposited, so he could write a check to DMV. Then he signed the car over to the TV guy and the deal was done.

And so was Fred. After all the sales tax and liens were paid, he’d lost about $5,000. Or more exactly, he’d lost $5,000 of his wife’s money.

My brother is always fond of pointing out how to the people who knew our fathers, we are always half the men they were.

In Little Fred’s case, he might not have been half the man his father was, but he sure was half the con man.