Ralph Vance tries to talk about the late Bill Morrison’s generosity to the University of Mississippi, but the words catch in his throat.
“We’ve all been meeting and putting our heads together about how to do the right thing with this gift, but mostly we just keep saying, ‘Oh my god: the things we could do! Things we haven’t even thought about,’” said Vance, his eyes welling with tears. “I’m so thankful. It’s just spectacular.”
Vance is president of the Friends of the Library at Ole Miss, the support society for the University of Mississippi Libraries. The gift in question is a 7.2-acre undeveloped parcel of prime real estate in the heart of metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia, in the affluent and historic Brookhaven neighborhood – a picturesque area dotted with golf courses amid beautiful, old homes and tree-shaded streets.
Morrison, a 1970 College of Liberal Arts graduate who majored in English, sociology and anthropology, bequeathed the land to the University Libraries with the understanding that it would be sold for millions.
“The news of Bill Morrison’s generosity came to the Friends of the Library as a complete surprise. I was smiling for days!” said Sarah Frances Hardy, immediate past president of Friends. “What an incredible gift to all students of the university.
“Plus, because the gift is unrestricted, we are free to make decisions based on the current needs of our library. We are, quite frankly, overwhelmed and thrilled.”
Friends of the Library was planning a capital fundraising campaign before the Morrison gift was announced, so many needs already identified can easily be met.
“Now we can update our wish list significantly and set our sights much higher,” Hardy said.
Among the many needs met by Morrison’s gift are:
- Procuring equipment for the IDEALab – a space dedicated to teaching students new technologies, preparing them to meet employers’ expectations in the workplace
- Funding for a university archivist to ensure UM history is properly preserved and organized
- The ability to enhance special collections with materials needed to help recruit and retain faculty members highly esteemed in their fields of study
- The process for digitizing and preserving both special and general collections, so more resources are accessible online
- The purchase of general research materials including online database subscriptions
“And we obviously want to honor Bill for this incredible gift,” said Wayne Drinkwater, vice president of Friends and chair of the organization’s upcoming campaign for which Morrison’s contribution will be the lead gift.
“This is not only the biggest thing that’s ever happened in the history of Friends of the Library by far. It is probably the biggest single thing that’s ever happened to our library itself,” he continued, adding that the gift will enable Library Dean Cecilia Botero to accomplish goals for which there were previously insufficient resources.
The library dean is ecstatic, sharing that the gift will significantly enhance the University of Mississippi Libraries and improve its function as a center for research.
“We are extraordinarily excited about the possibility this gift entails: increasing our informational offerings in support of both instruction and research and providing access to technology, both established and emerging,” Botero said.
“Libraries are the great equalizers and, as such, we strive to ensure greater access to resources of all kinds.”
It’s a fitting gift, friends and family say, because Morrison visited his local public library every day.
“Sometimes twice a day,” said Debbie Landers of Atlanta, Morrison’s friend of the past two years. “If he got bored, he would just go to the library. He would use the computer there and, of course, he went to read. He really loved the library in general and when it closed during the pandemic, he missed it terribly.”
Morrison read voraciously. In fact, his pastime was punctuated with books of all genres – fiction and non-fiction, Shakespeare and Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, classic poets and more.
“He read novels as well. And he liked some fairly obtuse things like Greek poets. In fact, he studied Greek for a while at Georgia State University so he could read things in the original,” said friend Ken Horton of Atlanta.
Even when the library was closed, Morrison would read at home, relaxing in a worn leather recliner surrounded by his own vast library of books.
“He took the whole living room and dining room and made bookcases ceiling to floor and filled them with books,” said Morrison’s sister and Ole Miss alumna Cindy Seibels of Montgomery, Alabama. “His places were always overrun with books. He was the most well-read person I’ve ever known and he could talk extensively on any subject.”
Which is why he was such a joy to be around, friends say.
“No one had a party without inviting Bill!” exclaimed Julie Dodd, who worked with Morrison in Tokyo in the early 1990s when he traveled there to teach English to Japanese executives.
“I would say he was a bon vivant,” Horton said. “He was a great entertainer and liked to throw small dinner parties. He would mix you a nice, strong drink and make sure you had some really good food. He was an excellent cook and great storyteller, a good entertainer.”
“He liked a good party too,” Landers added. “He could socialize and mingle. He was a gentleman and very sociable. He wasn’t gregarious. He was quiet but also got along well in a group. Everybody who met him liked him.”
Morrison’s charisma sprang from his wealth of knowledge about so many topics, his friends say.
“Bill loved contemporary popular music,” said Dennis Begner of Atlanta, a landscaper who became a customer and friend of Morrison’s. “We scored tickets to Pink Floyd in the ’80s. Mostly for an occasional night out, we went to small venues to see original talented musicians playing.
“Bill also took a woodworking course and built some incredible walnut bookcases and tables one summer,” Begner recalled. “And he took piano lessons. He would give living-room concerts, but you had to ask and insist!”
Morrison was always eager to cultivate his talents and intellect whether through reading or through adventures at home and abroad.
“Bill and I liked to explore the city,” said Horton, who originally connected with Morrison when they discovered they both owned identical copies of the same obscure poem. “We would go to the museum, go out to eat at holes in the wall, maybe go hear music. We were both big rock ’n’ roll fans so we liked to go to record stores.”
There, Morrison would often discover a rare LP to add to his vinyl record collection — an assortment equally eclectic and almost as extensive as his library of books.
A quick flip through his passport reveals Morrison’s penchant for engaging with the world’s disparate cultures in such locations as the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Bangkok, Thailand, Sydney, Melbourne, London, Tokyo and more.
In each place, Morrison would fill his time with wonder.
His friend, Dan Considine, an American living in Tokyo, Japan, said he remembers a moment that Morrison spent with Considine’s son, a child at the time: “I have some charming and unassuming pictures of Bill and Arthur — sweet images of a little boy and a little-boy man, marveling at the grass and critters nature had on show.”
Gino Mastascusa, who also lives in Tokyo, likewise admired his friend’s childlike fascination with the world around him.
“I only have to think about Bill Morrison for a moment, and without pause, the biggest smile emerges,” Mastascusa said. “What always struck me about Bill was his genuine enthusiasm for life and for what life had to offer. He had the energy and spirit of a teenager while possessing the culture, intellect and erudition of a college professor. But what made this combination uniquely special was Bill’s unassuming nature and modesty.”
The two men were able to catch up over dinner in Japan in 2019 when Morrison and a few other friends visited Tokyo for the Rugby World Cup. In a subsequent letter, Morrison described the experience to his friend and intermittent traveling companion, David Smallbones of London, England.
“We had truly excellent sake, completely dry and elegant, and Gino ordered a variety of different dishes,” Morrison wrote. “We sat for two, perhaps almost three hours, just talking about everything. It was brilliant to see him in good spirits. He talked about his work … and we ranged over a lot of music and politics and Japanese culture. It was truly great.”
Smallbones remembers the many adventures he and Morrison experienced together, gaping at the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and having a beer in Asheville, where they enjoyed hearing singer-songwriter Cat Power.
On a second trip together, the duo headed south to Robins Air Force Base Museum of Aviation because of their mutual fascination with World War II aircraft. Morrison’s father, known as “The Colonel” and the original owner of the acreage in Atlanta, was a U.S. Air Force pilot who flew liberators into beleaguered West Berlin as part of the Berlin airlift. The two friends also toured Kennedy Space Center because of their interest in Apollo-era space hardware and many other points of interest throughout the southeastern United States.
“Bill was excellent company, and amazingly there was never a cross word. He was just a very decent, kind human being,” Smallbones said. “Incidentally, a couple of weeks after I got back from Atlanta, a package arrived in the post: it was Cat Power’s debut CD, a random gift from Bill.”
In 2007, Smallbones met Morrison in Phoenix, Arizona, for a grand sweep of the southwest. And in 2009, Morrison visited the UK, where Smallbones returned the favor on a one-week road-trip tour of the country’s many sites and attractions.
“I liked Bill from the very start,” Smallbones said. “He was a calm, steadying presence, not at all raucous or in your face. He had a great voice. He spoke slowly and clearly with a resonant and appealing Southern timbre. And he always engaged his brain before speaking. When Bill spoke, people listened. And what he said was always worth listening to.
“He had a dry and often self-deprecating sense of humor. He was knowledgeable and seemed imbued with a wisdom gleaned from his education and his life experiences.”
Having never really embraced technology, Morrison had recently taken an interest in smart phones, thanks to tutelage from his friend Michael Velkovich.
“I had finally convinced him that we might work together over the phone to bring him into the modern technical age with updated cell phone service, a computer and internet at home and he was enthusiastic about it,” said Velkovich who frequently accompanied Morrison on long walks around the city. “In fact, just hours before he died, we were on the phone together and he took his very first selfie, which he sent to Ken, and he was ready to purchase equipment to really get into computer technology.”
Morrison’s curiosity began at an early age – perhaps during his college days at Ole Miss. He once told Landers he would attend every free campus event from football games to ballet to piano concerts, taking advantage of all the activities the university offered.
“He said he wanted to get his money’s worth,” she recalled, laughing. “But I also think he was interested in learning so many different kinds of things.”
After college, Morrison returned to Atlanta to work with his parents at Morrison Flower Farm – located on the tract of land he left to Ole Miss – then the area’s leading supplier of begonias, impatiens, Easter lilies, poinsettias, all varieties of bedding plants and more.
Perhaps feeling wanderlust even then, Morrison accepted a teaching job in Japan. After about seven years in Tokyo, he returned home to work with his parents and, when his father died, ran the business himself until it dwindled during a period of drought.
Morrison continued living on the property in a quaint 1920s-style wooden house, briefly selling wine in a local shop followed by a stint as a jewelry salesman for a local store.
Morrison died peacefully at his home at age 72 in April 2020 from undiagnosed heart disease.
“Bill was a genuinely unique, original person with a great intellect and a caring heart. He was loved and liked by many who knew him,” Begner said. “That’s why I say he was an ‘extra ordinary’ person — not common, but special and memorable. Someone you really enjoy having around as a friend and companion. It’s sad that he left us so suddenly.”
Seibels believes her brother would have enjoyed knowing his gift will help current and future generations of students, as they cultivate their intellect and talents.
“He worked at the greenhouse, which was pretty much manual labor, but he would’ve been a great professor because his knowledge was so abundant,” she said. “He liked to see things grow, so I think he would like to know his gift is helping students’ minds grow through the expansion of knowledge.”
The University of Mississippi Libraries are among the few places on campus that reach every UM student and are increasingly not only a center for research and study but also a destination for gathering.
“Bill Morrison’s gift is the best kind of gift: it is one that lifts everyone,” Hardy said. “His generosity will enable the J.D. Williams Library to increase in a significant and meaningful way all of the wonderful things that are already happening.”
For more information about joining Friends of the Library, visit https://libraries.olemiss.edu/friends-of-the-library/. To make a gift, contact Charlotte Parks, vice chancellor for development, at 662-915-3120 or firstname.lastname@example.org
By Bill Dabney