'Forever Grateful'

‘Forever Grateful’

Former students fondly remember Creighton’s longest-serving president

By Amanda Brandt, BA’14

Barbara Vitzthum Melbourne, BA’85, sat on the steps outside the then-named Administration Building, crying. In her hand was a letter, outlining a difficult financial reality. Despite working two jobs and having her parents chip in as much as they were able, she saw no way she could continue to afford tuition.

At that moment, the Rev. Michael Morrison, SJ, the 22nd president of Creighton University, walked outside for a smoke break and approached the downhearted student.

“This doesn’t look good,” Melbourne remembers Fr. Morrison telling her.

He sat down next to the sophomore and recognized her as a student Phonathon worker. Fr. Morrison asked her what was wrong, and what she was studying. Melbourne shared her struggles with paying tuition, and told him she was studying philosophy with the ultimate goal of becoming a lawyer.

“Why don’t you come back in an hour?” Fr. Morrison told her, as he prepared to head back inside. “I’m probably going to want another smoke. I’ll meet you right here.”

Wondering what else the president could possibly have to say to her, Melbourne found her way back to the steps an hour later.

Fr. Morrison soon joined her, holding a different letter. “I found this scholarship on my desk and it’s for pre-law students,” he told her. “I think the Ahmanson family would be really, really happy to know you want to stay here.”

He went on to tell Melbourne that she was part of the Creighton family, and always would be.

Melbourne, stunned at her sudden reversal of fortune, said “Fr. Mike” went on to explain how the scholarship was funded by the Ahmanson family and their foundation. He also explained why her role as a Phonathon fundraiser for Creighton mattered to the University and its students, and how this endowed scholarship would be helping her and others for generations to come.

“It all kind of clicked together after Fr. Morrison explained it to me,” Melbourne says today, more than 30 years later.

Stories of Fr. Morrison’s kindness, particularly toward students, were shared widely on social media following the news of his death on May 24 at the age of 81.

Fr. Morrison was Creighton’s longest-serving president, holding the position for 19 years, from 1981 to 2000. At the time of his retirement in 2000, it is estimated he had signed nearly 45 percent of all diplomas issued by Creighton.

A native of Green Bay, Wisconsin, Fr. Morrison was a member of the Society of Jesus for 62 years, and a priest for nearly 50 years. After receiving a PhD in history, Fr. Morrison taught at Marquette University in Milwaukee before coming to Creighton in 1977, where he taught history and served as academic vice president.

As president, Fr. Morrison was known for sitting outside St. John’s Church and chatting with students as they passed by along the campus mall. He would listen, give advice, offer encouragement and simply be present, meeting students where they were.

Under his direction, Creighton added 10 new buildings to campus, including the V.J. and Angela Skutt Student Center, the Beirne Research Tower and the Lied Education Center for the Arts; established the nation’s first doctoral program in physical therapy and clinical doctoral program in occupational therapy; and grew the endowment from less than $16 million to more than $210 million.

While Fr. Morrison received numerous awards and accolades, most important to him was the success of each student. Charmaine Sassano Ogren, BSRT’84, remembers Fr. Morrison visiting her high school in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, while she was a student there, and telling her, “If the only thing you learn in four years at Creighton is to think for yourself, then we have done our job.”

“He’s the reason I chose Creighton,” says Ogren, who today works as a paralegal in Golden, Colorado.

Melbourne calls her encounter with Fr. Morrison on the steps of the administration building “truly life-changing.”

Thanks to his kindness, she was able to stay at Creighton, and graduated with a philosophy degree. After attending law school, she worked in Creighton’s Development Office, and traveled with Fr. Morrison to alumni events around the country. Today, Melbourne is the vice chancellor of institutional advancement at Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa.

Melbourne and her parents, Ed, BS’58, and Patricia (Peterson) Vitzthum — grateful for their own college experiences and the scholarship assistance Melbourne received — created a planned gift that will ultimately endow a scholarship fund in her parents’ memory and allow others to experience a Creighton education.

“I think back to (Fr. Mike),” Melbourne says. “He really inspired me to keep doing this. I remain forever grateful for his kindness, caring and wisdom.”

In reflecting on his role as president, Fr. Morrison once wrote: “How do I measure success? It can be done in terms of money raised, buildings built, budgets balanced, but they are superficial indicators. The real indicators are what happens to students — the education they receive, the experiences they have. … Each individual student whose life has been influenced by Jesuit education is a success, for the student and for us.”

Memorial Gifts: For more information on making a gift in memory of Fr. Morrison, please visit creighton.edu/Morrison.