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Manchester Mayor Lonnie Norman

This story was updated at 11:34 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, with more information.

Longtime Manchester, Tennessee, mayor Lonnie J. Norman has died after being hospitalized earlier this month with COVID-19, city officials confirmed early Monday. He was 79.

"With a deep sense of sadness and loss, we announce the passing of Mayor Lonnie Norman after being hospitalized for COVID-19 on October 1, 2020," city officials posted on the city's social media page early Monday. "Mayor Norman passed away in the early hours of Monday, October 12, 2020, after a valiant fight against COVID-19."

According to Coffee County Election Commission officials, Norman served as mayor from 1991 to 1995, was elected to the post again in 2012 and was just elected to his third consecutive term as mayor in August.

Manchester Alderman Ryan French knew Norman his entire life and said he'd always been special. He noted Norman marked a moment in history when he became the city's first Black mayor when he was elected to a single term almost three decades ago.

"It's a hard day for sure," French said Monday of the coronavirus claiming his lifelong friend.

"The unique thing about Lonnie is that so many people considered him family," he said. "There are multiple families that adopted him over the years. It's unique to have people care about you on that level."

French said his family was one of those and that Norman considered him family, too.

"I've known Lonnie my entire life," French said, his voice full of emotion.

"He told me one time , he said, 'I was not the first man to ever hold you as a baby but I'm the first black man to ever hold you as a baby,'" French said with a sad laugh. "He was around when I was born."

French said his grandfather and Norman worked together at Arnold Engineering and Development Complex in Tullahoma.

"Lonnie was integral in the desegregation of the base. He played a huge role in that," French said of Norman's years during the Civil Rights era. "That's something he probably didn't talk enough about."

French said Norman stands out among politicians because of how much his public service meant to him.

"Serving on the board with him was an honor but it was always remarkable to me how thoughtful he was with everything he did," French said.

When Manchester flooded in 2010, French said, he and Norman were helping to move furniture from a flood victim's house.

"Lonnie cared so much," French said.

Other local officials praised Norman as a friend and leader.

"My sincere condolences to Mayor Norman's family and to the citizens of Manchester in the loss of Mayor Norman," Ray Knowis, mayor of neighboring Tullahoma, said in a statement on Norman's death. "It has been my honor to know him as a fellow mayor and more importantly as a friend."

Coffee County Mayor Gary Cordell said he's known Norman for several years.

"It's a tragic loss for the city and our county," Cordell said Monday."He was a great man and a great leader. He and his service will be greatly missed and I enjoyed serving with him."

Manchester is home to the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, the largest such event in the country each year, and the city and Coffee County have partnered with organizers over the years on several projects, such as adding plumbing and electricity to Great Stage Park.

The festival has in turn donated millions to the city and county over the years through its Bonnaroo Works Fund. In addition, part of each ticket sold goes to the city and county each year. The festival sold all 80,000 of its allotted tickets in 2019 and had sold out 2020, as well, before cancelling due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Typically held in June, it will be held Sept. 2-5.

"We are deeply saddened by the loss of Mayor Lonnie Norman, said Jeff Cuellar, vice president of strategic partnerships with AC Entertainment, co-founders of the festival.

Cuellar worked with Norman and his office and said the mayor, "dedicated his life to trying to make the community a better place for everyone and his spirit will continue to serve as inspiration to all of us to continue his legacy. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, the Manchester community and to all who had the pleasure of knowing this amazing man."

(Read more: Bonnaroo 2021 to be held in September)

On Manchester's social media page, people from the community posted Monday about the city's loss.

"A great man and a positive staple in this community both in and out of politics," Manchester resident Brent Seals said in a post, while Manchester business owner Geoff Moreland in his post called Norman "a kind and friendly gentleman."

Norman left a lasting impression on Manchester's out-of-town visitors, too.

Huntsville, Alabama, residents Daniel and Sharla Horton own the Roo Bus, an old school bus painted with peace signs and flowers that they drive to Bonnaroo each year. Daniel said Norman represented what they love about the festival.

"Manchester is a town where Southern hospitality is alive and well," he said, "and it's in large part to Mayor Norman radiating positivity in only the the way he could. He so clearly loved hosting both musicians and fans of Bonnaroo, and was so proud that his town could play a part. He's going to be dearly missed, but his example and leadership will live on for ages."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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