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View from the 'ville
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

By Al Myatt

Giving an East Carolina legend his due

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.


Before his stint in the U.S. Senate, East Carolina alumnus Robert Morgan (pictured during his days as a member of his alma mater's board of trustees) was former president/chancellor Leo Jenkins' principal ally in the N.C. General Assembly at a time when pitched political battles were waged over East Carolina's bids for university status and a medical school. (Photo: ECU Archives)
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Bonesville The Magazine



There are generations of the Pirate Nation who have little idea what Robert Morgan contributed to East Carolina's growth and development.

That's a situation we tried to rectify with a feature on the former United States senator in the 2007 edition of Bonesville The Magazine.

ECU alumnus Robert Gray, Jr., a friend and admirer of the Morgan family throughout his life, coordinated an interview at Morgan's law office in Lillington this past spring. Gray's father, R.A. Gray, had roomed with Morgan at East Carolina and later served as superintendent of the Harnett County schools.

Morgan seemed a little puzzled about being interviewed by a sportswriter.

"I was always too small to play any ball," he said.

Nevertheless, Morgan, all 5-foot-7 of him, should be remembered as a giant in East Carolina history despite his humble protests to the contrary.

Morgan shared with us a fascinating story of the legislative battles he spearheaded that resulted in university status for East Carolina and approval for a medical school at ECU. He provided behind the scenes details of a bitter fight to suppress East Carolina's efforts to better serve its region.

There were some surprising allies and enemies who emerged behind the scenes at that time. Morgan named names. He gave credit where it was due and placed blame to those who stood in East Carolina's way. It was a couple of hours of a memorable history lesson that media of the time had not been privy to and therefore had not reported.

Not only was the session interesting and entertaining but Morgan trusted us with the responsibility of recording his account for posterity.

His office generates a sense of history in itself. Morgan sits at a desk that once belonged to U.S. Senator Sam Ervin, who chaired the Watergate investigation near the end of a long career in political service. There are pictures of Morgan with five U.S. Presidents mixed with photos of his grandchildren on his office wall.

Morgan was born north of Lillington, across the Cape Fear River from the county seat of Harnett County, and followed an older sister, Ester, one of his six siblings, to East Carolina Teachers College in 1942. He said the cost of attending ECTC at that time was $300 a year, affordable enough for a family whose home lacked running water and electricity.

Morgan came to East Carolina at a time when everyone had an assigned place at tables in the cafeteria. He met his wife, Katie, dancing one night after supper when she cut in on another coed.

"Katie broke in on me — jitterbugging," Morgan said. "We're still jitterbugging — what? — 60-some years later."

With a break for military service in the Navy, Morgan graduated from East Carolina in 1947. His political career began in his final year of law school at Wake Forest College — before that institution moved to Winston-Salem — when a couple of Harnett County powerbrokers came to him and asked him to consider running for the vacant Clerk of Court position.

Morgan conducted a grass roots campaign, knocking on doors and talking with citizens throughout the county. Politicians couldn't buy name recognition with television ads in that era. Morgan was elected Clerk of Court and met those who came to his office personally.

His popularity served him well when he was prevailed upon to run for the State Senate by his political backers after one term in the Clerk of Court's office.

In the State Senate, the East Carolina alumnus joined forces with Leo Jenkins, a tough former Marine, who became president of East Carolina after Morgan had been appointed to the college's board of trustees by former governor Luther Hodges.

Jenkins and Morgan plotted a course to university status and the founding and funding of the medical school through a minefield of state politics. Supporters of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill perceived East Carolina's attempts at ascension as an erosion of their own power base and did their best to maintain their control over higher education in the state.

Those who insist that history repeats itself can point to many of the same issues of that era that have resurfaced in ECU's current bid to establish a dental school.

The number of lives that have been saved or made healthier by the ECU medical school serve as a testimony to Morgan's valuable work in the legislature.

He went on to serve as North Carolina Attorney General, as U.S. Senator and as Director of the State Bureau of Investigation.

Today, at age 81, he has his law practice on Front Street in Lillington and plenty of memories of the political wars he and Jenkins waged on ECU's behalf.

I think you'll find Morgan's story enlightening reading in the upcoming Bonesville magazine.

Send an e-mail message to Al Myatt.

Dig into Al Myatt's Bonesville archives.

07/31/2007 03:40:25 AM


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