Friday, December 14, 2012

Another Norton Character and Old Friend is Gone

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on December 14, 2012

By Bill Gouveia
Every town has people in their history who are simply unforgettable. Some are community activists, some are curmudgeons, and others are simply unique characters. My hometown of Norton has had many of each type over its 300 year history.

Paul “Zeb” Rich would properly fit into all three categories, but the one that most reflects his life is being a unique character. He was one of the last of a dying breed, a throw-back to the days when politicians slapped you on the back, knew the name of everyone in your family, and could practically recite the voting list in their sleep. Zeb was a true politician, and I mean that in the good sense of the word.

I’ve known Zeb for about as long as I can remember, and his death last week really hit home. My first memories of him are from when I was just an elementary school kid, and he was the teenager racing the fancy sports car up and down Route 123. We thought he was pretty cool, though probably not as cool as Zeb himself thought he was. From an early age, the one thing Zeb never lacked was self-confidence.

His father was a selectman during the 50’s and 60’s, and Zeb learned a lot about town affairs at his own kitchen table. It was inevitable that he would get involved in local politics. With his keen sense of humor, wide grin and outgoing personality he was a natural. And with his hard-nosed determination, way with words, and ability to remember and file away every enemy who ever crossed him, Zeb was a force to be reckoned with in town and elsewhere.

His first local election was a run for school committee. I was a student at Norton High at the time, and we were holding a mock election. Zeb came to me and wanted to know what the students cared about, how he could appeal to them. It may have only been a pretend election, but he still wanted to win it. He did, and went on to be elected to the committee and serve several terms. He recruited me to write some of his campaign fliers, and a lifelong friendship was begun – though we did occasionally have our differences.

Zeb went on to win a selectman’s seat in the mid 70’s, continuing his family’s tradition. This was in the days when Norton selectmen meetings were true events, even before local cable television. Remembering some of the shirts and ties Zeb wore to those meetings, it is probably a good thing there were no viewers who could watch back then. He was a hard worker, and never more than at election time.

Watching Zeb running for office was a real experience for this future local elected official. First of all, the entire family was involved. Each parent, brother, sister and cousin had a job to do and people to call. At the center of the effort was Zeb, who would stand at the polls all day and in his mind keep track of who had not yet voted.

At 5 pm he would turn to one of his family members and say “I haven’t seen John and his family yet – call them and make sure they get here to vote.” He didn’t have a list, or checkers, or a computer. He just knew, and he was never wrong. He never forgot a face.

Zeb was a huge sports fan and a longtime referee and umpire. He was also a big guy who loved to eat, and paid the price for it when his weight ballooned. Then you would see this huge hulking man jogging, even on the hottest day of the year, with sweat pouring off him like a waterfall. But he kept at it, and his weight slowly was reduced. Unfortunately, his health over the latter stage of his life was not good.

But I will always remember the smiling Zeb, the bearded Zeb, the one who would walk up to you and loudly say “Let me tell ya something” while slipping his arm around you. He was a true Norton Townie, and will forever be a part of the Norton I love.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and lifelong Norton resident. He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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