Story-tellin’

One of the great things about being a journalist is the stories people tell you, often stories that aren’t exactly “news,” but are interesting enough that you file them away to tell to others later. In my case, I used to have in the newsroom several boxes carrying the ghoulish label, “Prospective Death Box.”  Through the years my staff and I put recordings of interviews, speeches, and events into that box so we would dig them out and play parts of them back in our coverage of the death of a prominent person or the anniversary of an important event.

Some of those recordings are, as far as I know, the only preserved telling of a story, the only known recording of an event, the only sample of someone’s now-stilled voice.

One of those recordings is of the only man ever to serve three terms as State Treasurer.  He did it in the days when the Treasurer could not succeed himself, which makes his service even more remarkable.

M. E. Morris was a Dadeville native—southwest Missouri’s Dade County—who founded in 1928 the People’s Bank in Miller. He was elected to the Missouri House for the first of his two terms in 1932, after which he became the CEO of the Trenton National Bank. He left the bank in 1945 to become Commissioner of the state Division of Finance.

When the 1945 Constitution created a new agency for collecting taxes, the Department of Revenue, Morris became the first Director of Revenue for Missouri, serving under Governor Phil Donnelly.  This was in the days when Governors could not succeed themselves and therefore keep patronage-appointed department heads so when Donnelly left office, Morris ran for and was elected State Treasurer for the first time.  He could not succeed himself but fortunately Donnelly decided he wanted to be Governor again, so when Donnelly became Governor a second time, Morris became Revenue Director again.  When  Donnelly’s second term ended, Morris ran for Treasurer and won a second term.  The Revenue Director while Morris was in his second term was Milton Carpenter who became the state Treasurer in 1961, at which point, Morris replaced Carpenter as Revenue Director under Governor John Dalton.  When Carpenter’s term ran out, Morris ran again, and won a third term as state treasurer.

He retired from state government after almost 25 years as either revenue director or state treasurer, a pretty remarkable career that few people recognize.

Name recognition is important in politics and M. E. Morris felt he had a leg up on any candidate.   Although known as M. E. to the press, and “Monty” to friends, his real name, you see, was MOUNT ETNA Morris.

On March 23, 1984, a little more than four years before he died, I went to his home in Jefferson City to interview him for my book about Thomas Hart Benton.  The interview was pretty frustrating because Morris had little information to offer and furthermore spoke in a slow, low, halting voice and provided no useful details.  At the end, however, I asked him to explain how he got the name “Mount Etna.”  I listened back and transcribed it. And here, from his lips to my ears, from my keyboard to your eyes, is what he told me:

“Seems there was a Welsh captain on a ship, sailing ship, of course, back in the Mediterranean back in the old days, and he was off the coast of Sicily.  A storm came up and he was about to lose his ship, did lose his bearings.  Mount Etna was in eruption at that time, there on the coast of Sicily there.  So he got his bearings from the stream of lava flying up over there.  Got his bearings and saved his ship.  So when he got back home, his first boy baby, he named him Mount Etna.  That name has been in our family for many years.

“And I know about four or five Mount Etna Morrises are buried in south Missouri there.  That’s where they finally hung up.  In fact I sent a check this morning to the old Morris Cemetery down in the county just this morning.  They’re getting ready for Decoration Day down there. 

“My grandmother’s name was Mount Etna Morris.  That’s where the name originated.  It’s a good story.  And as far as I know it’s a true story because there’s been some Mount Etna Morrises in the past.  I know where four of them are buried. 

“I told that story many times in campaign speeches just so they would remember it.”  

Let’s face it, if you’re a voter and you go into the booth aren’t you more likely to remember a man named for a volcano than somebody named Smith, Or Jones, or whatever?

Mr. Morris died in 1988, at the age of 87.  I doubt there are many recordings of his voice, let along many, or any other, recordings of the story of his name.

I intend to donate these recordings to the audio history collection of the State Historical Society.

———————–

As I was writing the book about the art of the Capitol, it dawned on me late in the process that I had not written about the three paintings in the Senate Lounge of Senators A. Clifford Jones, Richard Webster, and Michael Kinney.  In writing the story of Kinney, I recalled that I had on tape a fascinating story about him that Webster had told me.

Michael Kinney served 56 years in the state senate, longer than any legislator in the nation served in one chamber of any state legislature.  He was a Democrat from the rough and tumble “Kerry Patch” Irish neighborhood of St. Louis once dominated by two Irish gangs, the Hogans and Egan’s Rats, a group that’s been described as “the first full-time gangsters to make regular headlines.”   He succeeded his brother, Thomas, an Irish tavern-keeper known as “Snake,” who handled the political issues for the gang before he died in 1912 during his second term in the Senate.

Michael served until he lost a primary bid for re-election in 1968.  He seldom spoke in the Senate and when he did his voice was so soft that many of his colleagues could not hear him in those days before there was a public address system. But his seniority and his knowledge of Senate procedure gave him great power throughout his career.

He sponsored many bills that became laws in his career, the one that is his most visible legacy being the one that created the state cancer hospital in Columbia.  For most of three decades he was part of a Senate triumvirate that exerted enormous influence.  He, Senators Michael E. Casey of Kansas City, who served from 1909-1944 after serving six years in the House, and Senator Joseph Brogan of St. Louis, who was in the Senate from 1909 until his death in 1940, were Presidents pro Tem four times among them and chaired powerful committees throughout their careers.  The St. Louis Globe-Democrat said Casey “was the spellbinder of the group…Brogan..was the witty, nimble floor fighter, while Senator Kinney was the subtle, behind-the-scenes diplomat, string-puller and compromiser.”

Senator Webster, who was from Carthage, was in the House before moving across the rotunda to the other chamber.  He remembered when he and Kinney were on a conference committee of House and Senate members working on a compromise of a bill that had passed both chambers in different form and Webster—then in the House—was complaining about Governor Forrest Smith.  Kinney told him, “I’ve told every House member and every Senate member that’s arrived on the scene and got mad at whoever the Governor was, ‘He’s just a Governor.  Those fellows come and go.’”

Webster remembered that Kinney sat on a high stool in his office at 7 a.m. each day of the legislative session, stripped to his waist with a table cloth wrapped around his neck while his grandson-in-law, State Auditor Haskell Holman, shave him.  Kinney sat with his back to the open door.

“If you looked, you’d see a bullet hole in his back, “Webster told me.  It was a scar that Webster said remained from an assassination attempt during an Irish gang war.  Kinney was shot four times—in the chest, both arms, and in the jaw—in 1924.  He later identified a police photograph of a recaptured escaped mental patient as the man who shot him.  But there was considerable doubt even then that Kinney told the truth.  Although suspicions lingered for decades that his near-assassination was part of the heated rivalry between the Rats, of which Kinney remained a part, and the rival Hogans, Kinney never commented about the issue publicly.” 

Privately, though, according to Webster, he did talk about it.  And Webster told me about one of those conversations in the privacy of Kinney’s office.

“Someone would say, ‘Senator, do you remember a fellow named Jimmy O’Brien?’  And he would say, ‘Jimmy O’Brien.  He was a nice fellow.  Whatever happened to him?’”

“Well, what had happened to him was that Mike Kinney could never identify his assailant although his assailant was about three or four feet from him when he fired the shot.  But a month later, Jimmy O’Brien did rise to the surface of the Mississippi River.”   

There is, as far as I know, no other telling of that story except for the version Richard Webster related on tape to me that day.

Another case of the journalist collecting the first draft of history.

——————

I have in my tape library several hours of Senate floor debate in which one of the greatest Ozark story tellers ever to serve in the legislature embarked on some of his long, windy expositions on some subject that might or might not be related to the issue at hand.  There is no doubt that many of the stories Danny Staples told were pure fabrications or old jokes recycled for the moment.  But many of his stories came straight from his early life as the son of a grocery-store owner in rural southeast Missouri.

In March, 2002, the Senate was working on an election reform bill triggered by some of the big problems at the polls in St. Louis in 2000.  Staples launched into a story that was not particularly original except in the telling.

“I’m not going to say what country it was because I don’t think the statute of limitations have run out yet. But I can remember full well an old boy that was a sheriff down in one of the southeast counties.  And this young, handsome, debonair, good-lookin’ candidate was running against the incumbent state senator down there.  And the old retired official down there had named his successor and they came in and they both liked this young, handsome, debonair good-lookin’ fellow that was running the incumbent.

“One night it was raining, two days before the election, and the old man and the boy, his protégé, were out in one of those famous Civil War cemeteries down there in southeast Missouri.  One of them had a flashlight; the other one had a legal pad and a pen. And they were taking names off the Civil War cemetery headstones, been there since 1865.

“They were voting absentee ballots for this young, handsome, debonair challenger of this old retiring state senator. 

“And…the old official that was retiring had the flashlight and he was looking at a headstone there in the middle of the night and it was weather-beaten; it was worn from the hail, from the wind, from freezing rain, and the atmosphere.  And the young official that replaced the old official looked at him and said, ‘Hey. Pop, we can’t get the name off this headstone.  It’s been worn out. It’s no longer legible.  Let’s move over to the next one.’  The old man looked at the boy, and he says, ‘Cubby, this man has got just as much right to vote as this man.’’   

“That’s the way you run an honest election.”

Staples told the Senate after that, “You don’t need laws on the books to protect the innocent.  We only need laws on the books to protect those that would be corrupt and greedy and grafty in the greatest society in the world, and that’s the electoral process.”  I have read the transcript of that remark time and again and I’ll be darned if I can figure out the logic in it.

Staples usually tipped off his storytelling by asking a Senator who was handling a bill, ‘Would be interested to know, Senator….” Even if the Senator was NOT interested, Staples would proceed to inform him—and everybody else.

He decided to tell another story during this particular debate but the other senator—Doyle Childers who later became director of the Department of Natural Resources under Matt Blunt—answered “No, Senator, at this moment I’m not interested to know that, but thank you Senator.” At which point Staples stopped trying to debate and just asked to speak on the bill.

“Mr. President, it comes to my remembrance and my recollection now that they had another election in southeast Missouri…One day down in southeast Missouri, the day after the election, this man about fifty years old was sitting on the courthouse steps.  He was crying.  Tears rolling down his face.  A business partner of his walked by and he said, ‘What’s wrong?  Has there been a tragedy?’  He said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Yesterday was election day.’  He said, ‘My daddy’s been dead for nine years.  He come home and voted yesterday, didn’t even stop to see momma and I.’” 

(The Senate dissolved into laughter for several seconds on both sides of the aisle.)..

Staples went on:  “Now, I’ve won ten elections and lost one.  There was never voter fraud in the 20th Senatorial District.  Oh, sometimes we Democrats voted on Tuesday, sent out a press release, the Republicans would vote on Wednesday.  But the polls weren’t open on Wednesday as you well know. So the Democrats always won.”

Term limits finally got Danny Staples—one of the many egregious shortcomings of that misguided concept that relies on public apathy and civic irresponsibility for its support—after twenty years in the Senate preceded by six years in the House.  Not long after he was forced out of office, Danny Staples and his wife were getting ready for a trip.  He had taken the family motor home to town to get it all cleaned up and fueled up.  He drove it home and dropped dead of a heart attack on July 22, 2002. The legislature has been far too serious since he left.

We journalists not only get to witness events as they unfold and capture the stories that people tell in that process, the journalist also comes across long-forgotten stories in the course of our curiosity. I don’t remember how I stumbled on this last story but I filed it away, knowing I’d have a chance to tell it to somebody sometime. And son-of-a-gun, here is that opportunity.

Missouri history has LOT of wonderful animal stories.  Here’s one.

Many years ago I knew the first three-time Speaker of the House.  He served in the 1930s, was the Speaker for three of his four terms, and one night my longtime friend Clyde Lear and I sat down with him after dinner and recorded him telling some stories.   He told us about a day that the House and the Senate met together to see a special guest who was multi-lingual, including Morse Code, and apparently was clairvoyant to boot.

His name was Jim. Jim the Wonder Dog.  Folklorist and folk song-teller Bob Dyer wrote a song about “Jim, Jim, Wonderful Jim.  Never was a dog smarter than him.” At least not according to Bob Dyer.

Former House Speaker John G. Christy, who later was Mayor of Jefferson City for twelve years, recalled that there was no way Jim’s owner, Sam VanArsdale, could have given the dog any signals that day in the House of Representatives when—during an informal joint session—he was told in Morse Code to find the man known as the “Beau Brummel of the House.”   Jim trotted down the main aisle, paused, then turned in and wound his way through a row of desks and put his paw on the leg of a state representative who WAS known as the Beau Brummel of the House.  He was also told to find the sponsor of the horse racing bill, and he picked that man out from the crowd in the House Chamber.  That’s another story I recorded more than 35 years ago.

I love the way Bob Dyer concluded his song about Jim:

“So the next time you hear about man’s best friend,

            Think about that wonderful dog named Jim.

            And remember,

            Dogs can be just as smart as some humans are….dumb.”  

God gave people one mouth and two ears for a reason. Journalists are blessed by working in a profession that relies on that statement and having the tools to capture the stories that prove its truth.

 

One thought on “Story-tellin’

  1. Bravo, Bob, for the story on Mike Kinney!

    I’ve found it interesting regarding Egan’s Rats that they once pilfered the contents of a government warehouse containing medicinal alcohol during prohibition. Complicit in the affair, it was rumored, was a certain Lem Motlow….the same one whose name appears as “Lem Motlow, prop.” on bottles of Jack Daniels’ Tennessee sippin’ whiskey.

    Meanwhile, Old No. 7 Road in northern Boone County, Missouri, has nothing to do with Jack Daniels despite persistent rumors. It has a much more mundane origin for its moniker, the former Missouri State Route 7.

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