- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2006

NORMAL, Ill.

Mayor Chris Koos carries around a $50 or $100 bill when he is traveling on city business, offering to hand it to anyone who comes up with a joke he hasn’t heard about his central Illinois town where “Welcome to Normal” signs are about geography, not a state of mind.

“I still have the money,” says Mr. Koos, mayor of this growing college town since 2003. “Sometimes when people make the same joke you’ve heard a thousand times, it gets old, but you try to play along.”

Around Normal and in neighboring Bloomington, folks say they have heard all the wisecracks about a city that legend has it once combined with another uniquely named southern Illinois town for a newspaper headline that read “Normal man marries Oblong woman.”

Few mind the good-natured jabs, but say most are time-weary standbys that have grown pretty, well, normal over the years.

“What’s next to Normal, abnormal?” out-of-towners ask. “Is everything really normal in Normal?” “If you’re in Bloomington, is that as close to normal as you can get?”

Still, even city leaders say they aren’t above using their hometown for a laugh. For 25 years, retired City Manager David Anderson says he often introduced himself at conferences by saying he was “the only Normal manager here. The rest of you are something other than normal.”

In truth, the town’s offbeat name has nothing to do with the traditional American definitions of “normal” that have fueled the wave of jokes.

When the town was founded in the early 1860s, it took its name from the local university founded a few years earlier, then called Illinois State Normal University. Derived from the French “ecole normale,” or “training college,” the label was commonly used into the 1960s to designate U.S. schools that churned out new teachers.

The nation’s only other Normal, in Alabama, also took its name from a university that sported the training-college label. But Alabama’s Normal is only a postal designation for Alabama A&M; University, located in Huntsville, and has no local government or city structure, said Jerome Saintjones, a spokesman for the Alabama campus.

Around Illinois’ Normal, officials suspect their unique name may have had a hand in three decades of growth, helping to make McLean County downstate’s fastest-growing county between 1990 and 2000. The population in Normal alone was 45,000.

“I can’t point to any one company or organization that located here because of the name, but I think it caught some attention because it’s unusual and that did some good,” Mr. Anderson said.

Mike Humphreys, an Illinois State University marketing professor, said Normal likely earned a second look from companies sifting through a nation loaded with Springfields, Lincolns, Clintons and Bloomingtons.

“We marketers are interested in memory or recall and I do think there’s a great memory aid to it. It’s a simple name and it’s kind of off the wall,” Mr. Humphreys said.

Mark Peterson, Normal’s city manager, said the unique name often nets free exposure for the town when the national press tries to check the heartland’s pulse on elections and other issues.

“There are far worse names,” Mr. Peterson said. “I came here from the Kansas City area and lived near Peculiar, Missouri. I’m sure they get the same sort of comments, but I’m glad we’re called Normal and not Peculiar.”

Former Bloomington Mayor Richard Buchanan says jokes about Normal have waned since he headed its twin city from 1977 to 1985. He credits Normal’s growth from largely a college town to a city that is home to Mitsubishi’s only U.S. car-building plant and expanded retail and housing developments.

“It’s become a really healthy, outstanding community as perceived by others,” Mr. Buchanan said.

Even locals sometimes shy away from the town’s unusual name. Fewer than a half-dozen businesses are listed in the phone book with Normal in their name, compared with dozens in neighboring Bloomington.

“Normal Psychiatry? If I was toying with names for that business, I’d chuckle at the notion then move on to something else,” Mr. Humphreys said.

The townspeople, known as Normalites, sometimes duck the name, answering “Bloomington” when they are out of town and asked where they live, Mr. Peterson said.

“I think people are proud of their community,” he said. “Maybe they just feel Bloomington is more recognizable since it’s the older and larger of the communities. Or maybe they just don’t want to put up with the jokes.”

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