Saturday, April 16, 2011

"Old Man Morrison"

When Les Goates was writing a regular column for the Deseret News back in the day, he popularized a recurring feature he styled as "Enchanted Moments." Over the years as his descendants we have continued to record what is now a long legacy of stories that have become very dear to all of us.

Really, what they are is an uncollected collection of cherished spiritual experiences. If the truth were told, many of them have not yet been written because of their sacred and personal nature. I am always amused when a speaker rises in a sacrament meeting and apologizes for sharing a personal experience, because I always ask myself, "Well, what other kind of experiences are there besides personal ones, so why apologize?"

Last night I had what could only be classed as an Enchanted Moment. It was a phone call from a dear lifelong friend. We grew close to one another as our paths crossed at East High School, when he joined the Church as a new convert. He served as the Seminary President two years before I did. He went to the University of Utah and joined Sigma Chi Fraternity, and I followed in his footsteps once again two years later.

His mission call was delayed for two years until he was twenty-one and legally able to make the decision to go on a mission because his non-member mother refused to give her consent. When his call finally was able to be processed, he was called to the North British Mission. Four months later, I received my call to serve in the same mission.

We loved our time together in England, though we never served together in close proximity. On occasion we reunited for zone conferences. His mother continued her opposition to his participation in the Church until the day she died. She was a single mother all the years I knew them, and she supported them financially the best she could. He also had a sister who was ten years younger. Both learned hard work early as a necessity.

After our missions, my friend went to dental school at the University of Washington. His education was paid for by the Air Force in return for a service commitment when he finished. His initial enlistment was followed by what stretched into a thirty-year Air Force career, and his assignments took him and his family all around the world. He retired as a full colonel in recent years and he returned to the Seattle area where he still practices and teaches orthodontics. He served as a Bishop twice, a Branch President twice, and the First Counselor in a Stake Presidency. He and his wife are faithful, true disciples who now serve in the Seattle Temple as ordinance workers.

Because of the many miles that have separated us since those early days of our friendship, we rarely see one another or even communicate on a regular basis. They have two children and three grandchildren. Their annual Christmas letter is a cherished gift each year as they have chronicled their lives.

Then just yesterday I found him on LinkedIn and we connected. Soon thereafter I received a message from him because he saw my e-mail address in my profile. Technology is many things, but one thing I love about it is when I can make connections again with dear friends. He asked me to call and gave me his numbers.

"I've Kept a Secret From You"

When we talked, it was as if time collapsed and we picked up right where we left off. Our love for one another has never dimmed nor diminished one iota. There were three things on his mind, the first two quickly dispensed, then came the blockbuster. "David, I have kept a secret from you for many, many years that I need to tell you about." My mind raced instantaneously. What could that be? What had my dear friend withheld from me? A secret? I thought I knew everything about him.

Slowly over the next hour and half we were on the phone he poured out the details of his biological father. As he spoke, it became obvious to me I really had never known anything about his family. I had always just accepted the assumption of his father's death and his name, leaving his mother as a single mom raising him and his younger sister, not even knowing or questioning that his biological father was really someone else with a different surname.

I am intentionally withholding my friend's name, though our family will know of whom I speak.

His biological father, he explained, was something of a reclusive and mysterious figure who had withdrawn into a shell of his own making. He lived in a ramshackle, run-down small old home. The yard was an overgrown untended tangle of weeds, an unkempt eyesore that was uncharacteristic of the surrounding neighborhood. It was one of those properties everyone discussed and despised because of what it might do to affect property values. The man himself was gruff and mean-spirited. He was rarely seen in public, except when he emerged to walk to and from a nearby neighborhood grocery store.

The boys in the neighborhood caught fleeting glimpses of "old man Morrison" on occasion, but his interactions with his neighbors in general were isolated and rare occurrences. They were always discussing the mysteries and mythology that grew up around this withdrawn hermit from society, assertions like: He was wealthy beyond imagination; his fortune was concealed under his mattress; he had killed someone and he was on the lam; he was a spy and this reclusive lifestyle was his cover. There were dares and double-dog dares to sneak into the house when he was known to be out and look around to see if his concealed fortune could be uncovered. No one ever accepted that dare. It was just too risky. There was no end to the speculations of little boys. But one thing was certain -- he was harmless.

Imagine my surprise when my dear friend disclosed that "old man Morrison" was the same "old man Morrison" who lived directly across the street from my childhood home! To walk out our front door, was to stare directly into the unsightly front yard and broken down house I just described. He was our "old man Morrison," the undisclosed natural father of one of my dearest friends! And I never knew!

Last night he went on to explain he had first become aware of his father's true identity at about age ten when his mother told him the story for the first time. Embarrassed and resentful that he did not have a father, my friend had chosen to keep this secret tucked away from me for most of our lives. As the details poured out, however, my reaction was probably predictable given our deep and abiding love for one another. It only endeared him to me all the more.

The Early Years

His full name was Seth Warner Morrison, Jr., and was born on 21 February, 1895 in Salt Lake City, Utah. His father, Seth Warner Morrison, Sr., served in the Utah State Legislature in its inaugural year of 1896, when Utah became a state. Seth Sr. was listed as a “Gentile (Non-Mormon) Republican,” and his picture shows a large, bushy mustache. Warner, our "old man Morrison," grew up in Salt Lake City, but my friend says he knows little of his father's childhood and adolescent years. He often spoke of his love of skiing the beautiful mountains of Utah, and presumably worked in his father’s lumber company as a teenager.

Upon graduation from Salt Lake City High School and some preparation at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, he went away to New Haven, Connecticut, to attend prestigious Yale University. He graduated in 1917, with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

A biographical entry from a Yale University book entitled Class of Nineteen Seventeen recounts some of his activities at Yale. World War I was still going on in Europe, and as a new graduate, he went to San Francisco and volunteered for the U.S. Army. He served as a First Lieutenant in the 91st “Wild West” Division, 166th Field Artillery Brigade, 347th Field Artillery Regiment, which primarily saw action in France. He was in Fohren, Germany when the Great War ended on Armistice Day, 11 November, 1918. Again his activities in the war are well documented in a biographical entry from a Yale University book, Nineteen Seventeen in the War (1917 was the year of his graduation). Apparently, he had sustained some internal injuries during the war, but there is uncertainty about what they were.

Upon his discharge on 30 April, 1919, he returned to Salt Lake City, and went back to work for his father in the lumber business. The next year, in September, 1920, he joined the Masonic Order, Wasatch #1, Grand Lodge 8105, Lodge 781, and rose to attain the 3rd degree or level in that organization. As of 9 December, 1932, though, he discontinued his activity with the Masons. He was also a member of Salt Lake Post, No. 2, American Legion, and the Squawmen’s Union, No. 1.

Warner served as a Republican member of the House of Representatives in the Utah State Legislature from 1921-1922, as had his father. He also served as president of the Yale Club of Utah from 1922 to 1925, and was a member of the University, Alta, and Country Clubs of Salt Lake City.

During this time frame, he went to the Sierras to learn logging and sawmilling, and met and married his first wife, Elizabeth Maurice Martin in Portland, Oregon. To this union were born two sons, Seth Warner Morrison III, and Harry Douglas Morrison. “Si," as he was known later on, was born in Oregon City, Oregon and Harry Douglas in Salt Lake City. Unfortunately, Warner and Elizabeth divorced in 1931, and she moved back to Chicago, Illinois and re-married. Warner stayed in Salt Lake City and had split custody with his sons, and then also re-married.

His second wife, Edith Doris Friedrich Freiin von Hadeln, was a German national tennis player, and one daughter, Margot E. was born to them in Salt Lake City. Again, this marriage also ended in divorce several years later.

My Friend's Memories of our Mr. Morrison

"I don’t recall how old I was when I first met my father, but it was probably after I started elementary school in the early 1950s. For the first three years of my life, I lived in Los Angeles, California, where I had been born. My mother had met Warner at our great-aunt Jeanne’s restaurant, Jeanne’s Tea Room, which was not far from his father’s lumber company. In the winter of 1945, she had gone to visit her first cousin, Adrie Peters in Los Angeles, and did not know she was pregnant. She went to the doctor suspecting she may have a tumor, but was given the news she was actually expecting a child. She was elated, because she always wanted to have children, but was embarrassed she was not married.

"I was born at the Rose Maternity Hospital on 25 May, 1945, and we remained in California for the next several years. Mom had gone to work for a naturopathic doctor and author, and though he too had had several previous marriages, they married on 8 December, 1946. Unfortunately, he passed away of a stroke on 20 April, 1947, and so I never knew him. He did not adopt me, but my sister and I have always carried his last name, as did my mother for most of her life.

"On 26 June, 1947, she legally had our names changed from her Dutch name to our current names.

"We moved back to Salt Lake City when I was about three years old. Mom worked in various occupations when I was growing up in the lower avenues of the city, but primarily worked as a cook and housemaid at several boarding houses. Later on, she pursued her degree at the University of Utah as an elementary school teacher, and this profession was the joy of her life. She was artistic, an accomplished pianist and vocalist, and she used these talents in her teaching. The one good contribution to her life from Warner during that time was his help in her passing some of her classes.

"When I first met Warner, he had become somewhat of a recluse. He was balding, and had lost many of his teeth. His home at 84 'U' Street was about a mile from where we grew up. It was never a normal abode, but filled with aisles of newspapers you had to walk down to get through the house. He never owned a car, and got around by walking or by public transportation. He was a chain-smoker, and drank a lot of red wine over the years. Undoubtedly, the fire that destroyed his home in later years was caused by a cigarette he had not extinguished. He was then forced to move to a hotel in downtown Salt Lake, and our mother visited him and helped him as much as she could.

"Warner died at the age of 75, on 23 February, 1970 in Salt Lake City. A funeral service was held for him at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, which Si attended and, no doubt, paid for. Our father was cremated and buried in the Mount Olivet Cemetery, not far from where his parents were buried. Each Memorial Day, a small American flag is placed on his gravesite to honor his service to our country."

The Lessons

In all the overcoming, the loving and forgiving, my friend now stands as a shining beacon. Whatever your childhood experience might have been, you can rise above it and make a wonderful life. You do not forever have to be consigned to a state of birth circumstance bondage.

Imagine all the patience, the sacrificing, the overcoming, the desire to rise above the unsavory elements of his early childhood, to become the man he has become and to finally come to a place of peace, serenity and acceptance of the facts of his biological creation. My heart was welled up continually as the details poured forth and I heard in his voice the tranquility and the steadfast determination to research his family lines in the Morrison family tree and take many of those names to the temple to have their work done for them.

My friend's mother had speculated that his withdrawn and reclusive nature might have been attributed to injuries, perhaps more psychological than physical, traced to his involvement in the war. As might be expected, he found solace in his alcoholism and cigarettes.

Living in the northwest was one of my friend's half-brothers, a prominent lawyer who had recently passed away. Almost as if by "coincidence" he happened to read the obituary and made the link. My friend attended his half-brother's funeral and connected for the first time with his blood relatives and a daughter, who while "not yet" a member of the Church is an ardent genealogist. Imagine the discussions they must have had with one another at that funeral!

My sister reported she remembered the fire that consumed the home of Mr. Morrison vividly, the flames leaping upward a hundred feet into the air. It awakened the whole neighborhood in the middle of the night it happened. One of my younger brothers, I was reminded, was actually accused of setting the Morrison fire. Some time earlier, he and a friend had set a brush fire east of my grandfather's home a few blocks away, so suspicion turned immediately to them. No doubt the newspapers inside the home served as an accelerant once the blaze started, probably from the forgotten burning cigarette within. All these years later, now Mr. Morrison's temple work, along with many of his progenitors, is being done in due course by my dear friend. Imagine!

I asked my father the day after this disclosure if he and my mother had ever had a conversation with the reclusive and mysterious "old man Morrison." Flabbergasted at my disclosure of Morrison's true identity, my father could only lament, "We must have been terrible neighbors. No, I don't ever recall that a single word passed between us."

In the course of one's life there are many pleasant surprises, "secrets" we never know about, happening right under our noses. The precious, treasured secret last night delivered by a dear friend can only be classed as an "Enchanted Moment." It underscores once again the need to never assume anything.

My take away from his long-held secret was a simple one. Everyone in your life has a back story worth learning. Even someone like an "old man Morrison." We all have someone like him in our lives. I have resolved to learn more about the seeming "ciphers" all around us.

A few minutes later, welling up with the emotion of what I had just heard, I wrote back an e-mail response to my friend. This is what I told him:

Thanks for your disclosure about your biological father. It makes me love you and admire you all the more. Your "secret" only burnishes my esteem for you and the magnificent life you have lived.

In addition, I want to share something that happened when my mother was near her death. Because she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, then went through three rounds of chemotherapy and two major surgeries, we had what I came to call "the long farewell." She survived three and a half years. We knew she would be gone eventually because it was terminal, so we said our farewells many times in anticipation.

One day, seated on her bed, she reminded me again what a valiant spirit I must have been in the pre-existence to have warranted the privilege of being Harold B. Lee's eldest grandson. I had heard this from my parents all my life, and often the reminder felt like unwelcome pressure to bear. That day, hearing it again, something different happened within me. Like a lightning bolt the realization hit me. I said, "Mom, I don't really believe I did anything to earn that privilege, I probably had to beg for it instead."

I reminded her of the story recorded in Matthew 12:46-50, and also in Mark 3:31-35:

While he yet talked to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him.
Then one said unto him, behold, Thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee.
But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren?
And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!
For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.

We often attach inappropriate significance to the "royal" families in the Church, those who are related by blood to the prophets. However, it is my considered belief that those who have the royal blood of the prophets coursing in their veins include all who have "believing blood," as Elder Bruce R. McConkie used to characterize it. We may all trace our lineage to Father Adam and Mother Eve. How is that not royal blood coursing through all our veins? It is our faith and belief in the gospel that unites the family of man, not the facts of our biological birth.

You, my brother, are in the first rank of the believers and valiant disciples, and there is nothing in your life that would ever suggest anything less regardless of the obvious and unfair comparison of our biological parentage. I hope to someday be considered as worthy as you in the Lord's eyes.

Much love,



A little work, a little play
A little sorrow on the way;
A little sigh for what’s unwon,
A dream of when the race is run.

A gleam of hope from morning skies,
A little light from love’s dear eyes;
The swinging gate, the setting sun –
We close our eyes and life is. . .

- Les Goates

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