No one celebrated when Harry Morrison left.
When word came this week that William Agee was retiring as chief executive officer of the Morrison Knudsen Corp., employees honked horns in the company parking lot. They partied at a Broadway avenue bar, all but did cartwheels in the hallways.
This was not damning with faint praise. It was damning with resounding joy, which is infinitely worse.
I didn’t know Bill Agee, whom employees blamed for undermining the company. But I did know Harry Morrison, the its co-founder, and the difference between what their employees thought of them couldn’t have been greater.
In Agee’s defense, it can be said that few executives wouldn’t suffer by comparison. They don’t make leaders like Mr. Morrison any more.
My use of the word “mister” is intentional. Even people who worked with him for years addressed him as Mr. Morrison. He commanded that kind of respect.
Lyman Wilbur, MK’s chief engineer for many years, said people were willing to work for the Boise-based engineering and construction company for less than they could make elsewhere because they considered it a privilege to work with Mr. Morrison. His professional stature and public influence were enormous, but he didn’t make employees feel small. He trusted their judgment, helped them with personal problems, loaned them money when times were hard.
This was a man honored on the cover of Time magazine as having “done more than anyone else to change the face of the Earth.” The company’s projects included Hoover Dam (and more than 100 other dams), the San Francisco Bay Bridge, Penn Station, air fields, highways, railroad lines …
In Idaho, MK projects included Bogus Basin, the New York Canal, Cascade Reservoir, Ann Morrison Park (named for his first wife) and others. Without Harry Morrison, Boise wouldn’t have one of its signature entertainment venues, the Morrison Center for the Performing Arts.
I knew him slightly through the son of his second wife, Velma Morrison. Her oldest son and I were in a band together in high school, and we practiced at the Morrisons’ home on Harrison Boulevard. It was a nice house, but not at all pretentious. Its owner didn’t need to show off. His accomplishments were more than enough.
I’ll never forget the night I met the famous Mr. Morrison. I was lugging a guitar amplifier through his darkened living room, where he was watching cars pass by on Harrison Boulevard, probably thinking big thoughts. White hair, craggy face, impossibly distinguished looking. If Hollywood needed someone to play God in a movie, he’d have been perfect for it.
I was 16 and more than a little intimidated, but he couldn’t have been nicer.
“Here to practice?” he asked me.
“Play well,” he said. “Do your best.”
He was getting on by then, nearly 80, and in failing health. Why he put up with us is a mystery. He couldn’t have liked our whanging away on rock and roll songs week after week, but he remained cordial, even encouraging.
Even though he was ill, not going anywhere or expecting anyone, he always looked imposing – impeccably dressed, often in a dark suit with a tie, his bearing erect, his presence majestic. I remember thinking he would have made a good president.
There was something rock-solid about leaders like Harry Morrison. They had survived wars, weathered the Great Depression, gone from humble beginnings to changing the face of the Earth.
When they said things would be all right, you believed them.
You celebrated their achievements, not their departures.
When ultimately they did depart, you mourned,
That was the difference.