At the End of a Mission

The following article appeared in the winter 1999 Creighton University Magazine.

At the End of a Mission

By Bob Reilly

In the fourth week of the long Ignatian Retreat, the Jesuit confronts the essence of his vocational commitment, placing honors and reputation in perspective, while focusing on a personal relationship with God.

You sense that the Rev. Michael G. Morrison, SJ, embraced this final stage, the “third degree of humility,” well before his announcement that this would be his last year as Creighton University’s 22nd president. He confessed that he was tired, that he coveted more time for spiritual growth, and that a fresh approach might be a good thing for the University. For 18 years, he has given himself fully to a demanding vocation.

“This isn’t just a job,” he said. “The Society sent me here. I’ve been ‘missioned’ in the same way Creighton has been assigned its mission.”

When he quietly exits his second-floor office in the Administration Building, his legacy will include a number of achievements that can be statistically verified, starting with his record-setting tenure as chief executive. He’s surpassed the two-term total of the Rev. Michael P. Dowling, SJ, (1885-89 and 1898-1908) and the dozen years that the Rev. Carl M. Reinert, SJ, spent at the helm (1950-62). Four out of every 10 diplomas awarded during Creighton’s 121 years bear Morrison’s signature. During his watch, the University’s endowment grew tenfold, reaching $200 million. More than half a dozen new buildings grace the downtown campus. And Creighton’s academic excellence has been consistently recognized by national media and collegiate rating services.

But clearly the joys of his administration come, not from his fame as a builder, but from his human contacts.

“Fund raising is not a natural instinct for me,” he admitted. “I had to psych myself into it.”

His interaction with students, however, does seem instinctive. Habitually perched on the wall near St. John’s campus church, Morrison is a familiar and approachable counselor, confidante or friend. He may spend an hour a day or more in this manner.

“I get high on kids,” he explained. “They exhibit a deep concern for others; they want to do what’s right. They’re searching.”

To help in this quest, Creighton increased its theology requirements by a third, to nine hours.

“Even kids who are Catholic come here theologically illiterate,” Morrison said. “Where we were taught answers, they were taught questions.”

He’s reluctant to criticize this generation for their often-publicized flaws, like their reputed cynicism or lack of commitment.

“They’re products of their environment. So don’t blame them, blame us. It’s the rare person who is reflective enough to counteract the trends. I find today to have a lot of similarities with the ‘20s, but the pendulum will swing again.”

Morrison characterizes his own home life as “almost ideal,” with “loving, close parents.” He thinks that’s where he developed his own balanced views.

Born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 1937, Morrison’s roots stretch back to Scotland, where the clan’s appellation was “The Manly Morrisons” and the translation of their Gaelic name became “Son of the Servant of Mary.” This blend of the pious and practical seems almost prophetic.

When Morrison’s father, a former superintendent of power plants, died at age 89, his son was by his hospital bed. His sister, Mary Ann, retired a few years ago from her physical therapy teaching post at Marquette University, and Ora works for the Internal Revenue Service.

At age 90, Morrison’s mother, Gertrude, remembers him as a good student, active in sports and in church, and involved with both the Boy Scouts and theater.

“Michael had problems with stuttering,” she said, “but it never stopped him. When he had the lead in his high school play, my heart was in my mouth. But he did fine.”

The nun who taught Michael’s eighth-grade class urged him to enter the religious life, but his pastor advised him to wait four more years. After high school graduation, he was torn between the priesthood and a Navy career. An Annapolis appointment seemed to make the decision for him.

“He believed that, if he was accepted for the Naval Academy,” said his mother, “it was God’s way of telling him he didn’t have a religious vocation.”

As it happened, Michael failed the physical, betrayed by high blood pressure he attributed to his penchant for sucking cubes of salt. Again, he saw this turnaround as a sign, and, in 1955, he entered the Jesuits, surprising both his folks and a confused girlfriend.

“He received a lot of mail from the Jesuits,” explained Gertrude.

Ordained in 1968, he ultimately acquired five degrees, including a PhD in history, and he taught at St. Louis University, Marquette, The University of Wisconsin, and both Creighton Prep and Creighton University.

After stints on the Hilltop as vice president for Academic Affairs and acting president, Morrison was chosen by the board of directors in 1981 to head the University. If presidents were issued report cards, Morrison’s would be one to make his mother proud.

Said John C. Kenefick, former CEO of Union Pacific and chairman of the board that appointed Morrison, “He’s good at his job, an outstanding person, with integrity, and with solid communication skills.”

Another board member, investments executive Charles F. Heider, echoes these sentiments, remarking on the president’s total dedication.

“He typifies what a Jesuit is. He’s a great educator who handles challenging responsibilities in a variety of disciplines. I like his management style. He listens, and he never backs away from a tough decision.”

Commercial Federal Bank president William Fitzgerald, the current board chairman, agrees with these positive assessments.

“He lives his job, brings a lot of strength to it. I find him warm, perhaps a little shy. But he’s worked hard to overcome any social hesitation, and he’s reluctant to take credit for accomplishments or to abuse the perks of his presidency.”

Morrison’s counterpart at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, former chancellor Del Weber, sums him up this way: “He’s never showy. He just gets things done.”

The Rev. Thomas N. Schloemer, SJ, entered the Jesuit seminary in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, with Morrison some 44 years ago. They remain close friends, talking often, taking occasional business trips together, like to South Dakota, where Morrison is on the Red Cloud Indian Mission board of directors.

“Despite his earlier assignments,” said Schloemer, “basically, his career has been here. One thing about him I find fascinating is that he had no financial training. He’s self-taught. He mastered this skill, and he knows where the money is.”

The two old friends chat often — about history (“I’m interested, but not in his league.”), the Green Bay Packers (“Did you know his mother was secretary to ‘Curly’ Lambeau?”), other sports (“He took up golf and may play half a dozen rounds a year.”) and Morrison’s love of gadgets, especially in his car (“He taught himself on the computer.”).

Schloemer characterizes his former classmate as a voracious reader, even though his busy schedule usually forces him to divide the reading of his Divine Office between early morning and late evening.

“History works are my favorites,” said Morrison. “Right now I’m reading Stephen Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers. But when I’m traveling, I favor detective stories, spy stories.”

Often, his reading and his work are accompanied by classical music as background, relying on public radio stations.

On television, he normally opts for sports, especially football, but he hasn't been to a movie since the year he was installed as president.

When he can get away, Morrison, like the Hemingway he superficially resembles, heads for Key West, Fla. “I’ve been there a dozen times. Just to kick back and relax. I liked it better before all the new roads were built and it became so crowded.”

Whether on the beach or at his desk, Creighton’s 22nd president maintains his practiced balance. Always the realist, he can impartially dissect his own personality. “I suppose my strengths are my ability to take things in stride, to never lose any sleep over decisions made. Mental health is a Number One consideration for me. It’s a grace.”

As for weaknesses, he quickly mentions impatience. “I want things to happen yesterday.”

Does this mean he has a temper?

“Better ask my secretary.”

“He can get angry,” acknowledges Sally Komrofske, who has managed the President’s Office since 1986, “but it’s always short-lived. Then he smiles and breaks the ice. It’s usually because he is anxious for answers, because he expects the same dedication from others that he demands of himself. Budget times are the most stressful.”

Komrofske likes the variety in her daily duties. “Each day is different, challenging. This is a small office, with only three people, and it’s a challenge to remain organized. Father doesn’t like to put off people who need help. He wants problems to be handled quickly, so we’re usually pretty busy. Little things like ordering supplies sometimes get neglected.”

Besides the occasional demonstration of impatience, Morrison also has his pet peeves. “I get mad when people drive vehicles on our campus mall. I call security. And I dislike those people who act like there is no one else in the world, or those ex-smokers who are on a crusade.”

Morrison quit smoking three and a half years ago, “because it was socially unacceptable.”

But he can still enjoy a social drink. “I love scotch. I never met a scotch I didn’t like. Johnny Walker, Chivas. It should always be taken neat.”

This adopted Nebraskan, who has come to love Omaha, has no hesitation in naming his favorite food. “Steak! I hate chicken. It’s served so often when I’m on the road. Even in salads they stick chunks of chicken.”

He also has his local heroes. His predecessors, the Rev. Carl Reinert, SJ, and the Rev. Henry Linn, SJ, along with his former boss at Marquette, Academic Vice President Ed Simmons. And, of course, his parents. He still telephones his mother every Sunday. “Right at 4:45 p.m.,” said Gertrude Morrison. “If he’s going to be away, he alerts me.”

Soon, of course, he will be telephoning from a new destination. He approaches that subject casually. “I’m looking forward to the openness of the future, the lack of structure. Later, who knows? I’ll have a sabbatical year to think about it. Retreat work has appeal for me. Maybe teaching, although it will be hard to retool for the classroom.”

One thing he won.t do is hang around the Hilltop, declaring that would be unfair and uncomfortable for his successor.

In an article written in 1997 for WINDOW, Morrison wrestled with the reconciling of his mundane responsibilities with his spiritual commitment. He concluded that, because he helped educate people in the Jesuit tradition, he was, in his way, building the Kingdom of God. Still, even though he’s had a minimum of isolation, living apart from his office locale in a high rise Creighton residence hall at 21st and Davenport, he obviously craves fewer distractions.

“I’d like to be able to really concentrate on my prayers for long, uninterrupted periods of time.”

That sort of contemplative ease will be a radical departure from days charged with duties and decisions, but, in that relative silence, Morrison hopes to divine the answers to some of the deeper queries shelved by activity.

One of his Scottish ancestors, the 19th century Gaelic poet, John Morrison, wrote:

“Our hearts, if God we seek to know,
Shall know Him and rejoice;
His coming like the morn shall be,
Like morning songs His voice.”

Some of Fr. Michael Morrison’s friends and co-workers have suggested memorials to the man, perhaps even a special fund drive, a building named after him.

Given the reticent nature of this very successful Creighton CEO, an appropriate memento might be a small plaque on that well-worn concrete wall, reading, “FATHER MIKE WAS HERE.”