Paul Morrison was hired by Drake University in 1945. He’s been going to work on the campus ever since.
Paul Morrison leaned over a table piled high with binders, folders and game programs — stuff he specifically compiled for the day’s basketball game.
Referees stopped by his courtside seat to shake his hand.
“I used to know every referee on the circuit and all their crews. I’ve outlived so many of them that I am honored when younger guys want to shake hands,” Morrison said.
The Knapp Center drips with respect and admiration for this man. People appear to move his walker out of the way as soon as he is seated. Others will return at the end of the game with the walker. Fans bring him beverages during the game. Others bring him ice cream.
Paul will turn 99 years old this summer. When he first appeared on the campus of Drake University in 1935: the Social Security Act was being debated in Congress, “It Happened One Night” swept the top four Academy Awards, Louis Armstrong’s “All of Me” topped the billboard charts, Humphrey Bogart got his big break in the stage version of “Petrified Forest,” the first major league baseball night game was played in Cincinnati, Persia was renamed Iran, Italy invaded Ethiopia, Amelia Earhart became the first person to fly non-stop across the Pacific Ocean, “Popeye” debuted as a radio drama, and Jay Berwanger won the first Heisman Trophy. Except for time spent serving in the army during World War II, Morrison has been at Drake since then. To understate things, he has a deeper perspective than anyone else.
The Drake ties are older than Paul. His parents, Marion and Leonta, met at Drake in 1902. Fourteen family members have graduated from that school altogether. As a student there in the 1930s, Paul found his calling as sports editor of the university newspaper. Ronald Reagan was working at WHO Radio in Des Moines at the time. Morrison remembers the future president calling a Drake football game on public address.
While serving in the army, he researched chemical warfare and later published a daily newspaper, which won him a Bronze Star.
He rose from the rank of private to sergeant. After V-J Day, his route home took a strange detour when his flight was cancelled by General Douglas MacArthur. Morrison had to ride a boat home, via Australia, where war brides were loaded aboard.
He was hired by Drake as the school’s first communications bureau director. That was 1945. He’s been going to work on the campus ever since. By the mid 1950s, he simultaneously worked as a one-person ticket office, a one-person sports information office and as Athletics Business Manager. Current Athletic Director Sandy Hatfield Clubb reflected upon that.
“Today we have two full-time people in the Athletics Business office, two in the ticket office and three in the SID’s office. We also have part-timers and volunteers.
So, you could say that it takes more than seven people to do the work that Paul used to do himself, but you can never count enough people to replace him.
“He is the glue that defines what it means to be of Drake — the history, the legacy and the attitude. He does all the right things and stays in touch with the alumni. He is totally irreplaceable,” she said.
In fact, the destinies of Morrison and Drake were so intermingled that he went to work there as a volunteer historian — the day after he officially retired in 1986. He used to walk to work, but now he accepts rides from his daughter Holly or his granddaughter Abby.
“The walking I think was the key to my good luck with health. It was the only exercise I had time for. Drake was both my job and my hobby. As an exercise, walking is totally underrated. I have no vices. I never hunted or fished,” Morrison recalled.
On football road trips, Morrison would improvise interesting exercises. He walked both directions across the Golden Gate Bridge in the San Francisco Bay Area. He went dog sledding in Alaska with Drake basketball Hall of Famer Dolph Pulliam. His mobility keeps him from making many road trips these days.
“I miss those, too. I have managed to see 704 Drake football games, though,” he mentioned, beginning a reflection on changes good and bad in sports over his tenure. “Consistency is just not part of basketball anymore. It’s not possible in a long season.
Games can run from beginning of November to end of March. And there is no off season anymore. Coaches expect year-round commitment to their sport. There will inevitably be ups and downs.
“That means there are no more multi-sport athletes. I really miss that. Seeing guys like (long time NFL star) Billy Cundiff play basketball as soon as the football season ended was great entertainment. I also miss the men’s and women’s basketball doubleheaders. I understand they need to separate them for economic purposes, but I still miss them.
“You know what else? We used to give letters to cheerleaders. I wish we had never discontinued doing that. They work so hard, especially today with so much gymnastics included,” he said.
“I miss the Field House in the days of (former basketball coaches) John Bennington and Maury John and (Drake basketball All American) Wanda Ford. I miss seeing all the students lined up for open seating in the glory days at Vet’s Auditorium in the late ’60s and early ’70s. But don’t misunderstand that. Bill Knapp’s gift of the Knapp Center is one of the best things that happened to the school,” he summed up.
Morrison appreciates the relationship between Des Moines and Drake.
“Des Moines businessmen have been fabulous to Drake sports. That’s how the Drake Stadium came to be. A group of businessmen got together and issued bonds to finance it.
At the time, there was a push to see Drake in big-time college football. We had some memorable games against Notre Dame, but that didn’t come to be. Yet the stadium is one of best places in America to watch a game, and it’s the essence of the Drake Relays,” Morrison recalled.
Morrison refuses to answer questions about the best athletes he’s ever seen.
“I did that once with Drake basketball players, and when I saw my list published I realized I forgot Dolph Pulliam. So I don’t take that chance anymore. Not even with opponents. There have been so many great players who came here over the years — Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Wes Unseld. I could go on and on and still forget someone important,” he explained.
He will talk about his favorite Relays memories.
“Barnum and Bailey got it wrong. The (Drake) Relays is the greatest show on Earth. I am particularly proud of the role it had in developing women’s sports. When we brought (Olympic champion) Wilma Rudolph here, I saw her looking around for a dressing room. We didn’t even have a women’s dressing room then. We have come a long way,” he recalled.
He added that no one ever impressed him more than (Olympics champion) Carl Lewis, who ran despite a snowstorm.
“Lewis was aware that people had come to see him, so he ran. In that situation, most athletes would scratch rather than risk an injury. He had great character,” Morrison remembered.
He acknowledges that there have been disappointments such as football being discontinued for several years before returning at non-scholarship level and lean years in basketball between the glorious ’60s to early ’70s and 2008.
“I think we are where we should be, though. We are a mid-sized university with exceptional facilities for our size. We don’t have classes with 400 students, and we don’t play football in front of 50,000 fans,” he said.
His biggest disappointments are far more personal.
“The downside of living so long is that you outlive your friends and family,” he acknowledged. In 1987, Morrison’s daughter, Mary, died of cancer. His wife Pauline died suddenly of a brain tumor in 1991.
He prefers to dwell on positive things.
“We have been fortunate with coaches. Only a couple bums over the years, and they never lasted long. We have been a leader in women’s basketball from the beginning. That’s largely because our university presidents have been very supportive of that,” he said.
Current women’s basketball coach Jennie Baranczyk says some of the credit should be thrown in Morrison’s lap.
“He’s amazing. Are you kidding? He is so tender-hearted and so passionate about Drake and Drake sports. We want to win for him,” she said.
Who says that about a university historian?
This historian has been a part of history. Morrison was working in the press box in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in 1951 when Drake football star Johnny Bright suffered a broken jaw, thanks to a couple illegal punches delivered by Oklahoma A&M’s Wilbanks “I am not a racist” Smith. Pulitzer Prize-winning photos by The Des Moines Register’s Don Ultang and John Robinson, detailed the vicious attack. Those photos became part of the Civil Rights dialogue. They also motivated Drake to withdraw from the Missouri Valley Conference until Oklahoma A&M left it. Morrison is proud to remember seeing every game Bright played at Drake.
Today, Morrison spends his days in a museum-quality office piled high with old-school, low-tech information. He keeps track of former Drake athletes, and they usually stop in and say hello whenever they are back on campus.
One list Morrison has assembled includes all the members of any family who lettered in a sport at Drake. He is a master of information, and if there’s anything he doesn’t recall, he knows where to look it up. At basketball games, Morrison keeps media outlets updated with the score — not with Tweets or even email, but by hand dialing each place on the phone.
Drake football announcer Chuck Reed thinks that old-school approach is centric to what makes Morrison so revered.
“It’s almost unheard of in today’s sports world to see one person so committed to, so passionate about, and so loyal to one school. Most people today think the grass must be greener somewhere else, and that works out for them less than half of the time. Paul has never been tempted by anything but Drake.
“He truly bleeds blue, and he owns the nickname Mr. Drake,” Reed said. CV
|Drake Relays 2016: What you need to know
When: The Drake Relays will take place April 27-30. The beautiful bulldog contest is April 24.
Where: Drake Stadium is located at 2507 University Ave. in Des Moines on Drake University’s campus.
What: The Drake Relays is regarded as one of the premier track and field events in the nation.
Who: Collegiate athletes from around the country compete at the “Blue Oval,” as well as international athletes such as Lolo Jones. Jones, the former Des Moines Roosevelt star and Olympian, is slated to compete in an invitational 100-meter hurdles.
Why: This is the 107th annual Drake Relays. The first Relays took place amidst a blizzard in 1910. Since then, many of the world’s finest athletes have competed in Des Moines, including Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson and Bruce Jenner.
How: Ticket prices range from $5 for single-session general admission tickets to $95 for all-session, first priority seating. Tickets are available for purchase at www.DrakeRelays.org or call 515-271-3647.