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Friday, May 6, 2016

Remembering one of McCook's finest storytellers

Monday, August 9, 2010

(Photo)
Frank Morrison
In 2004 McCook (and Nebraska) lost one of its finest storytellers, when Frank Benner Morrison passed away at the McCook hospital, just a few days short of his 99th birthday. Frank was born in Colorado, where his parents, Frank and Viva had planned to homestead, in the eastern part of the state. However, her husband, Frank, died when young Frank was only two years old and Viva chose to take Frank and his three sisters back to Manhattan Kansas, to live with Viva's parents, Jacob and Charlotte Benner.

From the Benners Frank no doubt acquired an early interest in politics. Jacob, a Civil War veteran, served terms in the Kansas Legislature, and Charlotte introduced Frank to "social sciences, political life, and the Bible." In Charlotte's mind there was an earthly trinity, made up of the "U.S. Government, the Methodist Church, and the GOP." It wasn't until he became active with the high school debate team that he began to develop his leanings to the Democratic Party. Debate led to his decision to study the law, and Debate also instilled his dedication to the idea that "reason could, and must substitute for war in the world". Throughout his long life he was a staunch pacifist. But Morrison was strongly anti-war, without being anti-military. He was a student cadet and earned his commission in the U.S. Infantry Reserves at Kansas State Agricultural College (now KSU). (When World War II broke out he immediately volunteered for the Army Infantry, only to be rejected because of the remnants of an old ulcer.)

In college, at Kansas State, Frank got a preview of his political future -- in his senior year he was persuaded to run for president of the student body. He lost in a landslide, the first of many political defeats in his lifetime.

Frank spent a year after college teaching at Farwell Nebraska High School, to earn money to pay off his college debts, then enrolled at the University of Nebraska Law School in Lincoln, where he lived with an aunt, who was on the faculty at UNL.

Morrison's first law experience was at Maywood, Nebraska, where an acquaintance gave him free office space. It was there that he became a New Deal Democrat, when he was appointed "Local Attorney" for one of Roosevelt's new agencies, the Federal Home Owners' Loan Act. He became an activist for the New Deal, believing that the "Government should support farm prices, liberalize credit, create public works, insure employment and bank deposits, bring electrification to rural areas, check water and soil erosion, and regulate gambling on Wall Street".

In 1934 Frank was elected to his first of two terms as Frontier County Attorney and moved to the County Seat, at Stockville. The years at Stockville were important for two reasons, 1. Frank married his wife, Maxine, a teacher from Greeley, Nebraska (a union that would last for 68 years), and 2. Frank formed the state's first rural cooperative.

After Stockville, Frank entered into a law partnership with Frank Butler of Cambridge, operating the firm's office in McCook. Though the practice of law was rewarding, financially, Morrison longed to work with problems on the national level. But it was an uphill battle for a Democrat in a heavily Republican state. In '48 and '54 he ran for the US House of Representatives against Carl Curtis, losing both times. In '58, '66 and '70 he ran for the U.S. Senate, losing twice to Roman Hruska and once to Carl Curtis.

Between these races for political office, in 1955 the Morrisons moved to Lincoln, where Frank entered into a very successful law practice with John "Dugie" Doyle. He continued his involvement with national politics and the Democratic Party, but it was rather a surprise when J.J. Exon, a Lincoln businessman, and a force in the Democratic Party asked (then persuaded) him to run for Governor in 1966, and even a bigger surprise when he was victorious, in his first of three terms as Governor.

Even though Frank's main interest was national politics, he proved to be a very effective governor. Among his accomplishments as governor were 1. Positive steps toward quality education, and expansion of UN. 2. A state-wide Public Television Network. 3. A Center for continuing education. 4. A Committee for Gifted Children. 5. Promoted dialog of Ag leaders with their peers in other states. 6. Promoted tourism, to the extent that he was known as the Father of Nebraska Tourism. 7. Recognized small towns as Ethnic Capitals, to spotlight cultural heritage and diversity. 8. Formed a Hall of Fame Committee to honor outstanding Nebraskans. 9. During Morrison's watch the state adopted a State song, Beautiful Nebraska, which Maxine, who had a beautiful voice, did much to popularize. 10. He honored the major historic trails that passed through Nebraska, the Oregon, Mormon, and California Trails, which converged near Kearney, providing the germ of the idea for "The Arch" 30 years later. 11. Social reforms, the 1st retirement pensions for state workers, a merit plan for judges, the 1st medical assistance programs, Fair Employment practices, a Commission on the Status of Women, a Commission on Equal Rights, and a Commission on Aging.

In 1976 the Morrisons moved to Montana to practice law with son, Biff. But they always had a warm spot in their hearts for Nebraska, and in '90, at age 85, they moved to Lincoln, and in '97 they returned to McCook, where they lived to the end of their days.

In McCook Frank enjoyed his status as "Elder Statesman". He had a big, booming voice, and even simple pronouncements were delivered as if he were announcing the commencement of World War III. Maxine always took a seat immediately behind Frank, and if she though he was going on a bit too long, she would give his coat tails a little tug, which was his signal to "wrap it up!".

Very often Frank was a featured speaker at the Buffalo Commons Storytelling sessions. Very often his stories had himself as the fall guy of the story. He loved to tell of the time that he ran for the McCook School Board. He was endorsed by both the Republicans and the Democrats, but alas, he was defeated by a Write-in candidate.

Once he broke his leg, while walking along the Republican River. A friend in Washington called to tell him that he had no business walking "The Republican River" .

Though Frank Morrison had great success as an attorney and as Governor of the State, he always regretted that he had not had the opportunity to serve the people on the national level, as an elected official most of all, but also, that he had missed an appointment as a Judge of the Supreme Court by President Johnson. "That's just the way it goes in politics", he said, a bit sadly, but with no special regrets. Morrison did not hold grudges. Even after three hard-fought battles with Carl Curtis, Frank considered Carl one of his best friends. "Really, we thought about the same on most things. It was just as to the size of the Federal Government that we differed".

Frank and Maxine spent their last years involved in a number of projects. Here in McCook they were active, along with son, Biff in promoting Heritage Square, the district around Norris Park, honoring Senator Norris and McCook's three Governors.

Probably the project that Frank was most passionate about was the Arch project, across the Interstate at Kearney, which paid tribute to the men and women who pioneered the three trails across the state, converging near Kearney--a great monument, and a great legacy for the man who fought to make it happen---Frank Morrison.

Source: NSEA Profiles and "My Journey through the 20th Century", by Frank Morrison


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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By