There are generations of the Pirate Nation
who have little idea what Robert Morgan contributed to East Carolina's
growth and development.
INSIDE GLIMPSE AT
|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
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Bonesville The Magazine
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 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
"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
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.