of the driveway of his Middletown home, points his gold 2010 Mercedes 350 north on Del. 1, and heads to his office at 1213 B St. in Wilmington’s troubled Southbridge neighborhood.
“The problem is,” he says, “no one ever picks up their phone at this time in the morning.”
When they do, the 49-year-old Oliver is ready. A Bluetooth seems permanently affixed to his ear, an iPad is usually in his hand, and he carries two cell phones.
Oliver needs all this technology to stay abreast of a diverse and burgeoning entrepreneurial domain that includes NOR Enterprises and Our Youth Inc., enterprises aimed at providing student and school support services mainly to hard-to-reach youth; his annual Thanksgiving turkey giveaway, now 27 years old; and “Community Crossfire,” his Sunday night TV show on Comcast Channel 28.
Oliver also fields calls and e-mails from politicians of both parties and from people who once participated in his Stormin’s Classic youth basketball league. Last but not least, there are six or seven calls daily to and from Margaret, his wife of 18 years. He won’t see her or their 16-year-old son, Norman Jr., until 7 or 8 at night.
Currently near the top of his many enterprises and projects is Rock Solid Contracting and Development and Zanthia Way, 13 town homes on the 900 block of Vandever Avenue, on the east side of Wilmington. Aimed at low-income buyers, the project is named after his mother, who died in 1988.
Built by Casale Construction, the 1,800-square-foot homes sell for $159,900. With subsidies made possible by the city of Wilmington and private funding, Oliver is able to offer buyers $5,000 in settlement help, as well as a flat-screen TV.
The settlement assistance is critical, says Tony Casale, president of Casale Construction. “It’s getting harder and harder to qualify for a mortgage today. I’ve seen loans denied an hour before settlement.”
Oliver and Casale are hoping their project will fill an affordable housing void in the city. Home ownership in Wilmington stands at 44 percent, compared to a national average of 60 percent. What’s more, 2,171 Wilmington residents were homeless in 2010, according to the Homeless Planning Council of Delaware.
Zanthia Way serves as a reminder of Oliver’s own brush with homelessness.
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When he was in eighth grade, Norman and his younger brother, Alonzo, rounded the corner of their block in Southbridge one day to find their mother in the street, surrounded by their belongings. They had been evicted. “But we persevered,” he says. “We were a strong-knit family.”
Oliver has not only persevered, he has prevailed, overcoming a childhood of poverty and steering a precarious course through Wilmington politics to become a successful entrepreneur and leader in the black community. His years as a city councilman—from 1992 to 2003—were especially controversial. Back then, Oliver, a man who has an affinity for the spotlight, stopped taking calls from reporters after making headlines for the wrong reasons.
In 2000 he was one of many officials who were investigated by the state auditor for alleged misuse of Suburban Street Fund money. Oliver helped a college friend, John Kilgore, secure $85,000 in street fund money. Kilgore was to use it, in part, for a gospel music performance in Wilmington. The performance never happened, but Kilgore said he fulfilled his commitment by staging three rap-music seminars for teens. Oliver also got the late Rep. Al O. Plant, his old friend and mentor, and another lawmaker to grant him $45,000 in street fund money for Stormin’s Classic. The state turned over the investigation to federal authorities. No charges resulted.
Soon afterward, Oliver was forced to refund $18,873 to the Delaware River & Bay Authority. Spent on renovations to his B Street office building, the money came from the authority’s fund for nonprofits. DRBA asked for a refund after The News Journal informed officials that Oliver’s for-profit company owned the building. Oliver refunded the money, but it took nearly a year, which caused more headlines.
Meanwhile, he continued to take on additional responsibilities. Besides running Stormin’s Classic and his businesses, he served a brief time as chairman of Wilmington’s Democratic Party and attended the National Democratic Convention. In 2002 then-Gov. Ruth Ann Minner appointed him to the board of directors of his alma mater, Delaware State University, where he often crossed swords with DSU’s controversial president, Allen L. Sessoms, who has since resigned.
During Oliver’s final term on city council, Mayor James Baker, perhaps sensing the 4th District councilman was spread too thin, told The News Journal, “Norman is going to have to make a decision. Either he’s going to be a politician or a businessman.”
At first, Oliver says, “I was kind of offended” by the remark. But after thinking about it, he decided Baker was right. He chose business. By 2003, when he left city council, he had already discontinued Stormin’s Classic, and in January 2008, weary of battling Sessoms and other board members, he resigned his DSU position.
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Today Oliver says, “I want to employ a lot of people. And I want to make a lot of money. And I want to help our community.”
That community would be Wilmington in general and, in particular, Southbridge, on whose mean streets he grew up. Zanthia Oliver had nine children—five boys and four girls. Norman, the seventh of her offspring, was a handful. Zanthia once told a reporter she was sure he would be imprisoned one day.
Norman and Alonzo, who was 16 months younger, were best friends. Alonzo agrees with his mother’s statement. “Norm was a tough guy—stubborn, defiant. People didn’t see all this [Norman’s political and business success] coming. Back then, nine out of 10 [who knew him] would’ve said he’d wind up in trouble.”
While Norman always held summer jobs, and says he excelled at those involving selling, he concedes that he “didn’t take school seriously.”
Then desegregation, the bane of many students in the late 1970s, came to Oliver’s rescue. In his junior year, he was bused to Newark High School, where a diverse atmosphere opened new opportunities to him.
While admitting he was never a standout athlete, he played basketball and earned his nickname, Stormin’, as a defensive back on the Newark High football team. More importantly, the born extrovert found self-expression in the school’s drama department, appearing in several plays.
Oliver barely squeaked into Delaware State, but once there, he flourished. He began pursuing the breakneck schedule that would become his MO. While holding down various jobs, he was elected president of the freshman class and president of his fraternity. By the time he graduated in 1985 with a degree in social work, he had been named student government president and had received several awards for leadership and community service.
It was during his freshman year that Oliver started Stormin’s Classic Basketball League, perhaps the signal achievement of his career. He and a handful of men from Southbridge recruited 54 kids that first season. While taking summer courses in Dover, the 19-year-old Oliver commuted to Wilmington to oversee the league. It soon mushroomed into an athletic and social phenomenon, attracting many of the state’s political leaders. Joe Biden, Mike Castle and the late Wilmington Mayor Dan Frawley sponsored teams, and Minner was a major supporter.
By 2001, when he finally dissolved it, more than 2,000 boys and girls from the city and suburbs were participating in Stormin’s Classic. The league incorporated tutoring, community service, and drug and AIDS awareness, which won it national recognition. In 1993 Oliver received the prestigious Lewis Hine Award, presented each year to 10 people nationwide who have “made a commitment to the well-being, growth and development of youth.”
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Meanwhile, Oliver held a series of government-related jobs. Today his many political and community contacts are valuable assets as he pursues his varied enterprises, both nonprofit and for-profit.
His Sunday night TV show, which he had co-hosted with Rep. Hazel Plant for seven years, until she passed in November, serves as Oliver’s bully pulpit to the black community. He interviews politicians and community leaders, urges viewers to vote, and touts his favorites, usually Democrats. His efforts on Plant’s behalf in the September Democratic primary failed. He also supported incumbent State Treasurer Velda Jones-Potter, who lost to Chip Flowers.
Those defeated candidates give some credence to observers who say Oliver has lost influence in the black community. But Oliver’s many supporters—some of the state’s leading movers and shakers among them—point to all the good he has done, and to the fact that he has never been convicted of any wrongdoing, or even formally charged.
Admitting he once aspired to be “mayor, lieutenant governor, even governor,” Oliver now seems committed to his businesses, especially Rock Solid. “I think that’s going to be my calling.” Admitting that he has little expertise in building, he points out that he has “a lot of experience in networking and building teams.”
“I understand my limitations and my strengths,” he adds.
Such self-awareness helped bring Norman Oliver to this point in his life’s journey, a point where he has the power to name affordable, quality housing after his mother, and where he can do good while doing well. “I’ve been on welfare,” he says, “and now I’m a member of the University and Whist Club.”
Not bad for a kid from Southbridge.