John Morris was a professor at the University of Georgia for five decades until he retired in 1944, but to the educator’s grandson, he was a mysterious kinsman with facets of his life hidden in old tales in attic boxes, library files, and memories written in old books. letters.
About five years ago, the grandson—New York author and essayist Bill Morris—decided to delve into the life of his grandfather, now all but forgotten on campus and in the city where he lived.
The grandson said he has no memory of his grandfather, but there was a 1952 photo of nearly 90-year-old John Morris holding the child, Bill, on his knee. A physical meeting of the two had taken place.
“We lived at the same time. And he was born during the Civil War,” Morris said in a recent telephone interview.
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After several years of research, he not only built a historical picture of John Morris, but intertwined Morris’s story with events and people from those years in Athens. The personalities have included UGA football legend Vernon “Catfish” Smith to tennis legend Dan Magill.
They had roamed the same Athens neighborhood where the Morris family lived, on Mell Street near Five Points.
This year, New York publisher Pegasus Books released “The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century – From the Civil War to the Cold War,” a 365-page book about the grandfather’s life in an age of industrial and cultural revolution.
Bill Morris has written two novels, and although he is a writer for “The Millions,” a literary magazine, he has written for several publications, including the New York Times and Popular Mechanics.
John Morris lived from a time without motorized cars to a day when air travel became the mainstream reality – a 90-year period in human history befitting the book’s title as an “Age of Amazement.”
“Even as a teenager I thought about what he was going through, from horses to fighter jets, from single-fire rifles to the atomic bomb — radio, television, flushing toilets, penicillin,” the grandson mused.
John Morris was the son of UGA professor Charles Morris, who taught fine arts (including essays on artistic and literary criticism), rhetoric, and English in the 19th century. His siblings are Jim, who became a missionary in Brazil; Charles, an accountant; and two sisters, Susie and Louise. Another brother, Sylvanus, became the first dean of UGA Law School.
The Law School has a memorial page for Sylvanus Morris, describing him as fair and fearless, proclaiming, “He knew the common law of England just as he knew his Bible.”
The book shows that John Morris married Gretchen Gallagher of Upstate New York. She taught violin and piano at the Lucy Cobb Institute in Athens.
The Morris couple built their yellow stucco home on Mell Street and commissioned local architect Fred J. Orr to design the house, which survives to this day. Orr is one of the more historic architects in Athens, having designed numerous homes in Athens and elsewhere.
The couple raised five children: Margarethe, who married insurance businessman Charlie Parrott of Athens, along with Charles, Sarah, Jack and Richard, the latter who is the father of the book’s author.
Richard Morris was the youngest of the children and was born when his father was nearly 60, Bill Morris said.
“My dad grew up there and Catfish Smith lived next door and (history professor) RP Brooks, kind of a legendary guy on campus, lived on the other side of him,” Bill Morris said. Richard Morris graduated from Athens high school in 1938 and was co-editor of the high school newspaper “Thumbtack Tribune”.
Bill Morris had kept a letter his father wrote to him describing a trip to Atlanta, where he met Lou McGarity of Athens, who would later become an acclaimed trombonist in New York City. Bill said that 30 years after that visit, when he was 10, he took a trip to New York with his father. He remembered they were at a nightclub when McGarity, who was playing in the bandstand, came to their table to talk to his father.
“I was amazed that my father knew this man,” he said.
Bill Morris’s father was also good friends with UGA tennis icon Magill, the book which describes them going to games at Sanford Stadium.
Bill Morris said his grandfather had a reserved personality and that the study of languages suited him because he could “lose himself in a self-contained obscure world. He could shield himself from all the craziness of a big world.”
His grandfather had once compiled a German dictionary, which the grandson thought was lost, until a cousin, John Morris, who played football professionally for the Boston Patriots, said he had the manuscript.
“That was another gold mine for the book I came across while working on the book. I thought the dictionary was gone,” Bill Morris said.
“Getting the dictionary was an eye opener. The dictionary was not a great scientific work,” Morris said.
“John was really just cataloging things. It was not an inspired work of learning. That was disappointing, but at the same time I finally came to terms with the disappointment because he had done so many great things in his life,” he said.
“He had the conviction to live life the way he wanted. I eventually got a lot of respect for that,” said the writer who is now spiritually connected to a grandfather captured in an old photo.