Saturday, Mike Morrison’s friends joined his family at College Place Methodist to remember him and celebrate his too brief time on earth.
Born in Atlanta, he grew up in Brunswick and got a good public school education. I’m sure his early teachers told him nouns are people, places and things. Mike’s favorite noun was places, and his favorite verb was go.
If he wasn’t going someplace, he was thinking about it.
You can take a trip to Israel and retrace Jesus’ steps through the Holy Land. You can retrace Mike’s on the Appalachian Trail, a place he held sacred. The trail covers 2,200 miles between Springer Mountain, Ga., and Mount Katahdin, Maine. Every tree root and rock is worn slick and shiny by the soles of thousands and thousands of hiking boots. Mike put some of the shine on the trail.
He loved the high places and often suggested some to me. I once told him we were headed to the Smokys, and he suggested I park at Newfound Gap and hike north to Charlie’s Bunion with its spectacular views. It wasn’t far and not that hard of a walk, he said. We started up the trail, but it didn’t take us long to decide that his idea of difficulty didn’t match ours, so we turned back. I’m not sure Mike ever turned back.
I imagine his favorite version of the trail would start in Athens and end in London. His family said he went to London 21 times, which may tie him with some members of the House of Lords.
He told me after one of his trips that he got out early and just walked London’s streets. As for Athens, that’s where he got his degrees and education in journalism, his life’s work, and where his beloved Bulldogs play.
During his years with The Brunswick News as a reporter and columnist, he won awards year after year, and he wrote until his body wouldn’t let him.
This thing, ALS or Lou Gherigs’s disease, that took his life the day after Christmas wasn’t his first battle with bad health. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with a defective heart valve that had gotten infected. He was hospitalized and put on strong antibiotics that he didn’t think were working.
During his hospitalization, I was lying awake about 2:30 a.m. likely fretting over a story I had written, when I heard the quiet buzz of my Blackberry in the pocket of my jeans. I fished it out, and saw a message from Mike telling me he was near death and telling me he had enjoyed knowing me and working with me. “Time is short,’’ he said.
I responded, urging him to hold on and keep fighting and that I was praying for him. And I did lying in bed staring up into the dark.
I am writing this column now and not years ago because the antibiotics and some prayers worked, Mike got a valve replacement and recovered. He told me he felt better than he had in years and couldn’t wait to go hiking again, and he did.
In one of our last phone conversations, as ALS tightened its grip, he told me he was losing his ability to talk and to send him emails. He also said, “I struggle to walk.” That made my heart sink because I knew how he loved to walk. When he was recovering from his heart surgery, he had plenty of sidewalks to exercise, but he chose instead the trail at the college where the roots made for uneven walking. I think it was because it was through the trees.
But he didn’t just walk trails and London’s streets. He waded when he fished at his family’s place on the Little Ocmulgee River at Lumber City. He’d come back after a few days and tell me about all the fish he had caught casting as he waded.
“I saw a lot of snakes,’’ he’d say.
They were often in the very water with him. He invited me to go several times, and I regret never having time to go because I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than wade around waist deep in water moccasins.
We had met more than 30 years ago when the Times-Union transferred me to the Brunswick bureau from Waycross. I met Mike at Emmeline & Hessie’s where reporters, broadcasters and few other news people sometimes gathered as the Possum Club.
I got to know him better over the years, and he came to work with me after 2000 when his time with The Brunswick News had ended. I was looking for correspondents to supplement our small Georgia staff and I contacted Mike. He walked into my office where I told him I needed someone to cover local governments, write some features and, occasionally, some crime and courts. I told him what we would pay, and it wasn’t much. Instead of asking for more money, he asked, “How many stories can I do?” And we were off.
He seemed equally comfortable covering the governor or the Brantley County Commission, but he probably preferred Brantley County. He was an editor’s dream. He’d turn a story quickly and his work required little editing.
I’d call him about a story and he’d sometimes say he’d do it, but he had to paint a wall first or tear down a shed.
As the Times-Union cut its newsroom budget, I had to cut back on my correspondents budget. That was about the time Mike started showing symptoms of ALS so there were days he couldn’t answer the call. I missed talking to him although anytime we talked politics, we argued like, well, Democrats and Republicans.
But over the years, we laughed far, far more than we quarreled. I miss those conversations usually poking fun at local politicians who thought winning an election somehow made them brilliant.
When we talked about travels, I always had a place I wanted to go. His answer was simple, “You should go.’’ The work will be here when you get back, he said. “You should go.”
Last week his family took a long-planned cruise together to Mexico and Havana, which his parents had visited in the 1950s. I’m sure they all wished Mike, who had planned to go, had been with them with his unflagging enthusiasm.
I look at the trip as a tribute to Mike who, had he been able to, would have told them in that bright way he had, “You should go.”
I hope to take his advice and go to some of those high places we both loved where the air is clean, the only sounds are the soft thuds of your steps, your breath and the wind sighing through the needles and leaves.
In that quiet, I’ll thank God for the beauty and for the gift of friends like Mike.
Terry Dickson has been a journalist in South Carolina and Georgia for more than 40 years. He is a Glynn County resident. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.