By MAGGIE OLIVER
Special to the OBSERVER
Sometimes he's singing opera, sometimes he's whistling show tunes and sometimes he doesn't speak too much at all; no matter what, a ride with Norm Riggins isn't boring. He's kind of like an uncle who isn't afraid to speak his mind at a family dinner he is way past middle-aged but definitely full of life.
Norm Riggins poses for a photo by his bus at SUNY Fredonia.
At 74 years old, Riggins is the morning driver on the SUNY Fredonia campus and community bus route and he is known to many of the students and community members who rely on the bus services to get around Fredonia. What might not be known is how Riggins "Norm," as he prefers to be called came to be the bus driver and how truly interesting he is.
How many bus drivers have master's degrees? Probably more than you'd think. How many bus drivers have a master's degree in vocal performance? At least one: "Norm."
He graduated from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 1960. From there he took the $200 he had in his pocket and moved to New York City to pursue his dreams of theater.
To help support himself, Riggins worked at Brooks Brothers clothing, a store which is still open today and holds the same dignified reputation with a large selection of country club apparel and "timeless classics." Having worked in retail during his college years, he was experienced when he began at Brooks.
"I said to myself, I hope I don't have to sell ties," Riggins said, with a look on his face that appeared as if he could almost imagine the clothes he sold half a century ago. He smiled and continued, "What do you think I sold? Ties!"
It's difficult to look away from Riggins when he's describing his younger days, perhaps because he's still a performer at heart or maybe because he has great stories.
"Someone broke into my apartment and stole all my best clothes," Riggins said, without sadness or disappointment in his voice.
"My boss said he'd heard I'd had some bad luck and told me that he was getting rid of a suit if I'd like to try it on. It fit me perfect! I got a brand new suit from Brooks Brothers."
Riggins sports much more casual attire these days: light blue jeans and a puffy coat for winter. Even so, it is not hard to picture him dressed sharply in a suit with even more spring in his step and even more life in his voice.
It was around the time of the robbery that Riggins first became involved with the After Dinner Opera Company. Performing mostly one-act comedies, the company put on multiple tours.
"We just went all over the United States with a U-Haul behind the car," he said.
Following the After Dinner Opera Company, Riggins made his way on to Broadway.
"I've done the math and I did two tours of seven months each and probably 1,000 performances of 'Man of La Mancha,'" he said.
"Man of La Mancha" is inspired by the story of Don Quixote and is one of his favorite productions.
"I like the message of it, about the courage to go on," Riggins said.
After more than a decade of performing in New York, Riggins moved to Florida. He began teaching voice at the University of Central Florida.
In addition to teaching, Riggins did his fair share of performing in Florida. He performed in "Hello Dolly," "Oliver" and "The Threepenny Opera." He also branched out into other types of performance while living in Florida.
"I was a ring master for a circus, Ringling Brothers," Riggins said nonchalantly as he spoke about "the greatest show on earth."
The timeline when he began at the circus? The exact details are lost amongst many, many memories.
"I don't remember. I'll say late '70s to mid '80s."
Six years after his bout with the Ringling Brothers, Riggins went to Disney as a performer. He announced the daredevil show before landing a job in the Indiana Jones stunt show, a show that started with him and is still successful to this day.
As if he needed another career option, Riggins became a massage therapist.
Shortly after, he moved to Colorado and massaged in Colorado Springs. A natural curiosity had me ask if he ever massaged any celebrities. As he told about members of Air Supply and Steven Tyler, it hit me that Riggins was a celebrity in his own right, even if people like Steven Tyler didn't realize it.
"They didn't need to know," Riggins said, content to be simply "Norm."
Nine years ago, he moved back to New York state. Riggins and his wife settled in Brocton to be closer to his wife's family.
Before he became the campus and community bus driver, he did various jobs around the community. If there were any real money in theater around this area, Riggins would probably still be performing.
"Age has something to do with it," he said, explaining that after awhile, one does not have enough energy to go on tour, which is the way to earn a living as a performer.
Even at his age, Riggins does a good job entertaining the people who ride his bus, singing bits of opera to his passengers and telling stories of his extraordinary life.
I had to ask him when he decided to settle down.
He looked at me, smiled widely and said, "I haven't yet."
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