Mentor gave writer his chance

Posted: April 20, 2017 at 2:37 a.m.

How many of us owe our careers to a person that took a chance on us over more qualified candidates?

For me, that person was Jim Morriss, the longtime editor of the Morning News in Springdale. Morriss died last week, and tributes are pouring in from former employees, colleagues and proteges. I hadn't seen Morriss in decades, but I am grateful that I told him how much he meant to me.

I met Morriss in July 1990, after an ill-fated attempt to establish a business in Virginia. My life stalled, and my only marketable experience was an increasingly distant stint as the sports editor of the North Little Rock Times in 1986-87.

I had never been to Springdale, but I knew the town had a newspaper, the Springdale News. It had recently changed its name to The Morning News.

After driving all night from Virginia, I changed into a three-piece suit in the bathroom of the old Exxon station at the corner of Emma Avenue and Thompson Street. I carried a folder of aging clippings to a decrepit bluish gray building down the street and asked to talk to the editor.

With his characteristic gentleness, Morriss asked pointedly what brought me to his door and why I had been out of the business for so long. More to the point, why did I want back in?

"Writing is all I know, and it's all I've ever really wanted to do," I said.

"Do you know anything about bass tournament fishing?" he asked.

"No, sir, I don't," I said, "but I know how to find the people that do."

Morriss liked that answer, and though there's a lot more to this story worth telling, the short version is that he hired me.

I was part of Morriss's staff from 1990-94. In addition to outdoors, I covered high school sports, occasionally University of Arkansas, Fayetteville baseball, UA women's volleyball and visitor sidebars for UA home football games.

I designed the Sports section several times a week. That's done on computers now, but back then we designed the pages with pica poles and proportion wheels. We made final edits on dummy sheets with Xacto knives.

One night in the composing room I explained my "Theory of the 90 Percent," which estimates that 90 percent of all Americans have been hauled off to a police station at least once in their lives. Nearly 100 percent of the production crew had taken that ride, and they regaled us with their clink-worthy adventures.

Amid the mirth, the stoic Morriss fussed silently with his Editorial page. A pasteup artist named Lisa asked, "How about you, Jim? Have you ever been taken in?"

It was taboo to bother Morriss while he proofed his page, especially with such an impertinent question. He ignored her, but we all noticed a slight shudder.

Smelling blood, the irrepressible Lisa put her hands on her hips and asked, "Well? Have you?"

Morriss glared over the glasses perched at the end of his nose, but he cracked under the weight of our collective stares.

"I was very young," he grumbled. "That was a long time ago."

It took some effort to pry the details from him, but he seemed to enjoy the good-natured hijinks.

Our respect for Morriss was such that the revelation did not leave that room until now.

My first big story was in 1991, when anoxic water discharge from Bull Shoals Dam during the brown trout spawning period threatened to decimate the White River's vaunted trophy trout fishery. Fishermen and environmental groups pressured me to skewer the Southwestern Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for mismanaging the resource.

Perturbed by my slanted update during a meeting, Morriss said gently but firmly, "It's not your job to take sides. Your job is to collect and report the facts impartially. The facts will show who's right and who's wrong."

I am very proud of that story. It was one of the first nudges in a long sequence of events that produced -- 20 years later -- the minimum flow regimens that improved water quality in the Bull Shoals and Norfork tailwaters.

In 1992 or 1993, the newsroom TV was tuned to a cable news channel that anxiously awaited a news conference by President Bill Clinton.

Meanwhile, the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team was in overtime.

Clinton's appearance kept getting delayed, and the cable news heads speculated about all the palace intrigue that might be to blame.

Morriss stepped out of his office and said with a chuckle, "Bill's waiting for the ballgame to get over with."

The news conference commenced minutes after the game ended.

Morriss was right, of course. He always was.

Sports on 04/20/2017