100-year-old Paul Morrison embodies soul, history of Drake University


On July 25, 2017, Paul Morrison will turn 100 years old. He’s spent most of that time at Drake University, where he is a beloved figure and sports historian.
Cody Goodwin/The Register

I climbed the creaky stairs of the Drake University Fieldhouse sometime in spring 1994.

Back then, Paul Morrison kept an office there that overlooked the football field at adjoining Drake Stadium.

I’d met Paul before at many football and basketball games. In the press box at Drake football games, he made periodic announcements over the intercom: “As a reminder, this is a working press box. Please, no cheering.”

The admonishment was among the best pieces of journalistic advice I received at Drake — and I studied journalism there.

Paul was always genial and remembered my name, even though I was just a writer for the Times-Delphic, the campus newspaper. Paul considers people for who they are.

He could create a ranked list of the most successful Drake Bulldog athletes of all time from memory, but he never bothered with such a hierarchy in dealing with individuals.

Students, faculty, administration, coaches, trainers, cooks and cleaning staff were all part of the Bulldog family to Paul. He treated them all with love, dignity and respect.

In that way, Paul embodies the soul of the institution.

If I wrote something Paul liked, he would send a note over to the student newspaper written with a typewriter. Paul is many great things, but he is not one for computers.


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I had gone to see Paul to interview him for a column I planned to write about the ushers at the Drake Relays.

They were a volunteer program of people who checked tickets and helped people navigate to the right section. Some of the ushers had volunteered for decades and stood through the full gauntlet of Iowa spring weather from withering heat to snow.

I thought such dedication might make for a good story.

Paul was a volunteer himself. He retired in 1986 after more than nearly 50 years at Drake, including his time as a student and working in the news and sports information services.

His only break from Drake since 1935 was military service during World War II and a brief stint working at a newspaper.

Paul offered me a chair in his office. I was of smaller frame and girth then, but squeezing into the chair was a challenge.

Paul’s office was and remains a mountain of papers, photographs and bits of memorabilia from decades of Drake athletic history.

If it happened in the history of Drake sports, Paul probably has a file of clippings on it, but only he can find those needles in his haystacks.

I asked Paul a few questions about the usher program. One needn’t ask many questions in an interview with Paul.

The stories just flow like water bursting from a dam. I couldn’t scribble in my notebook fast enough.

I asked Paul if the Drake Relays ushers ever had much trouble. Paul said not too much, but he recalled an incident about 40 years earlier.

A man was trying to get access to seats along the finish line, but he only had tickets for the general admission area.

The usher told the man he needed to go to the other side of the stadium. The man found this direction unsatisfactory and pulled out a pair of brass knuckles and punched the usher in the face, cutting the usher’s lip badly.

It took a moment for me to realize this, but Paul had just told me the story of how my late father, G. Willard Finney, got his mustache.

In Finney family lore, my brother Jim, who had just bought a new car, came to Drake Stadium to pick up our profusely bleeding father, dripping red drops all over the floor of Jim’s new ride.

Dad recovered, but he didn’t like the scar left by the injury. So, he grew a mustache.

This was years before I was born, and I had only known Dad with a mustache.

Dad died in 1988, about six years before I interviewed Paul. I was 13 when my dad died. I was still haunted by the recent memory of his final, critically ill years.

Paul inadvertently touched me by reminding me of my dad when he was healthy and vigorous and years before I was born.

I wrote a column that day, but it wasn’t about the ushers. It was about Paul and how beautiful his memory was and the way the line of this one man’s life ran through almost the entire history of the university.

Consider this: Drake University is 136 years old. Paul, at 100, has been connected to the school for nearly the entirety of the institution’s existence.

His mother graduated from Drake in 1906. In all, 14 members of Paul’s family have graduated from Drake.

About 12 years ago, I worked in the public relations office at Drake for a brief time. I saw Paul almost daily when he still carried mail across campus.

One summer day, I came across Paul outside Old Main, the campus’ main administration building. Paul was standing there staring at Cowles Library.

Paul said he was trying to figure out where the old shed stood.

I was writing a series of stories for various publications for Drake’s 125th anniversary. I knew by “old shed,” he meant the equipment shed where the Drake football team stored their uniforms and pads.

The early teams only had one set of 11 game uniforms. They practiced on a field where the campus library now stands.

I wondered what it must be like to look at Drake through Paul’s eyes. He was a student when Daniel Morehouse was the university president.

Drake Stadium was only a few years old. Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at the school.

So many of the buildings that seem ancient now were once brand new to Paul. And so many faces passed through the little school between Forest and University avenues.

Paul collected all their stories.

Paul celebrated his 100th birthday Tuesday. He often said he’d like to live to a 100 as long as he wasn’t a burden to anybody — as if Paul being a burden was even possible.

Drake hosted a big celebration last weekend. I was unable to attend because I had a fever and was fighting a nasty infection.

I didn’t want to pass along whatever I had to Paul.

Register sports writer Cody Goodwin wrote a fine story about Paul. He did a better job than I could have, despite the fact that I’ve known Paul more than half my life.

Because when it comes to Paul Morrison, we Bulldogs in the press box will always be cheering.

Daniel P. Finney, the Register’s Metro Voice columnist, is a Drake University alumnus who grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or [email protected] Twitter@newsmanone.

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