By Bill Dabney
University of Mississippi
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, 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,” said Sarah Frances Hardy, immediate past president of the organization. “I was smiling for days! 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.”
Drinkwater added that the gift will enable library Dean Cecilia Botero to accomplish goals for which resources were previously insufficient. The 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 nonfiction, Shakespeare and Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, classic poets and more.
“He read novels as well,” said friend Ken Horton, of Atlanta. “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.”
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.”
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. And he took piano lessons. He would give living room concerts, but you had to ask and insist!”
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.
David Smallbones, of London, remembers adventures he and Morrison experienced, such as heading 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.
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 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.
Morrison continued living on the property in the 1920s-style wooden house and died peacefully there at age 72 in April 2020, from undiagnosed heart disease.
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 Ole Miss student and are increasingly not only a center for research and study, but also a destination for gathering.