It’s Not Over Until… My Appreciation for Writer, Artist & Raconteur Bill Morgan
Professor Joe Goldblatt
In many families there is a close friend whose good humour, talent and kindness illuminates their lives in many immeasurable ways. Our friend Bill Morgan exemplified the type of family friend with whom you would one day trust with your father’s ashes. There will be more about the ashes later.
For many years, Bill was a leading sports writer for the well respected Dallas, Texas morning newspaper that was published from 1888 to 1991. He spent many hours in the press box from 19550 to 1960 reporting for the Dallas Morning News on the penalties, goals, the wins, and losses of the games that Texans often pay more attention to than their religious institutions. In fact, for many people in Texas, sport is a religious sect tindeed a religion that often results in churches rescheduling their services so as not to conflict with football games.
At one such religious ritual sports experience in 1976 when Bill was the sports information director for the Southwest Conference, he told a fellow sportswriter ithat the outcome a basketball game was going to “be very tight”. His colleague turned to him and supposedly uttered these immortal words for the first time in sports journalism, “The opera ain’t over, until the fat lady sings!”
This exclamation was widely reported in the Dallas Morning News and has now become the stuff of legend in professional sports. Some believe this metaphor refers to a Wagnerian soprano singing a final aria at the end of a long opera or the famous American singer Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” to close her radio programme. Regardless, Bill Morgan heard this phrase for what may have been the first time in professional sports and it endures today as a way to describe when something in life is not completely final. And so, it now may be used to accurately describe the life of our beloved, hilarious and trusted family friend, Bill Morgan.
In order to support his growing family, Bill had to find additional income to support his salary as a sports journalist. Nearby his home was a new sports phenomena known as the Mesquite Championship Rodeo. In 1958, the former rodeo champion Neal Gay had built a brand spanking new stadium and he needed someone to write, publish and sell the printed programme for his weekly competitions. Bill had covered Neal’s rodeo career for many years and the two agreed to work together to insure his thousands of rodeo fans had a commemorative programme to follow the action and also provide a colourful keepsake of their visit to the rodeo.
As a close family friend, Bill asked my parents if they might be interested in having their son Joe make a few extra dollars each week by selling programmes at the rodeo each Friday and Saturday evening. I lept at the opportunity because not only would if be fun to work with the funny, clever and interesting Bill Morgan, I would also make a few dollars and on a regular basis be very close to those beautiful barrel racing cowgirls.
Bill assigned me the best spot for programme sales. I stood at the entrance to the rodeo stadium and each and every person who walked past me was offered a programme with my shouts of “All the Action! All the Fun! OK Folks, this is the ONE!” Then I would add “You’ll need a programme to tell the riders from the horses!” When I became too tired or hoarse I simply croaked “Programmes! Programmes! Only fifty cents!”
Thanks to Bill Morgan and my assigned location, I made a lot of money and soon became an integral part of the overall rodeo experience. After all, I was the very first impression for the fans. Before a fan purchased a Coke, Popcorn, or a Hot Dog, they purchased my programme. I was the gatekeeper for all the fun that would follow.
The rodeo always began with a large white stallion galloping to the centre of the arena carrying a giant fluttering American Flag followed by the singing of the National Anthem and then my job was done until intermission. That gave me lots of time to watch the action and also to enjoy some a flirting with the young female barrell racers. Indeed, my first love affair occurred at the rodeo when one cowgirl was impressed with my success in selling programmes and took a fancy to me, albeit, for only one brief rerformance.
Nevertheless, this youthful right of passage would never have occurred without the door that Bill Morgan opened for me. Bill and his wife LaVenia actually were so impressed with my skills that they invited me to occassionally babysit their three young children. One evening, Bill told me that it would be alright for me to fall asleep on the sofa, after I had safely secured his children in their beds. He said to me “Do not wait up for us, we will be very late.”
A few hours later I heard a thundering bang and jumped from the sofa in an instant to see if an earthquake had occurred or what else was the matter. As I groggily weaved toward the front door, Bill simultaneously staggered in with LaVenia following him while shaking her head furiously from side to side. He was laughing and smiling and then apologised and said “I cannot drive you home because I just drove the car into the garage door.” I was speechless as he handed several one dollar bills for my baby sitting money and then I slowly walked down the hill to my home. When my parents asked me why I had walked home I decided to be circumspect and not report the commotion that had occurred earlier. Many years later, with Bill’s permission, I shared the episode with others and we all had a good laugh becaause it had become obvious to the neighbours that Bill had not driven the car into the garage door at all. He had actually driven the car through the giant wooden door.
When my father, who was a popular Dallas politician, passed away my sister and I and our mother sat down at our kitchen table and read aloud his last will amd testament. Explicitly written in his will was the wish that he would be cremated and his ashes scattered so that no one would know where they were located. We discussed who would be best to do this and then we realised there was only one choice, one of Papa’s oldest and best friends, Bill Morgan.
A few years later I was feeling somewhat remorse that I did not have a place to go and pay my respects to our father. Therefore, I asked Bill if he could give me a few clues as to where Papa’s ashes might be scattered? He frowned and said “Joe, you know your father wanted this to be kept secret.” Then he leaned close to me, smiled and said “The next time you walk through the parking lot of Louie’s Cocktail Lounge or the Dallas City Hall, why not think about your Papa?” He kept his promise and the secret and simultaneously used his humour and kindness to help me during my grief for my father. I will always be grateful for this kindness.
Bill Morgan had many great old friends and 71 of them are depicted in a colourful book entitled “Old Friends” Great Texas Court Houses”. Following his retiral from journalism, he began researching. meticulously drawing, ultimately publishing in 1999 and subsequently selling his book that featured 71 of the 254 courthouses in the State of Texas. To promote the book he gave very popular speeches all over the Lone Star State and along the way made many more new friends.
Some months later after the death of our father, my mother asked my sister why Bill was sitting upon the bench in front of our house. My sister looked out the front window and Bill appeared to be intensely sketching upon a large piece of paper. My mother observed that he was probably drawing our family home as a gift for her. A few minutes later the door bell rang and Bill walked in and presented a framed drawing to my sister. She asked “What’s this?” He simply said “A gift for you. Open it and you will see.”
As my mother and sister marvelled at the highly detailed colour drawing of our beloved family home that he had sketched, Bill said “Now, you will always have a memory of this special place.” He would know because he had spent many an hour, often into the wee hours of the morning, during fifty years time, drinking, smoking, telling stories, laughing and plotting political campaigns inside this home that he loved almost as much as we did.
Today, that drawing is displayed in my sister’s home, and although at least two additional families have now lived in our original family home, Bill’s gift reminds us of our precious legacy. My sister also kept the original keys to our front door and they are auspiciously hung upon a corner of the drawing as an additional reminder of our first and in many ways, forever home.
I have discovered that the saying that Bill heard 45 years ago in that press box of it not being over until the fat lady sings, is actually not entirely accurate. When I learned of his recent death, I was suddenly remembered many happy and funny memories that occurred over six decades ago. When you have the rare privilege to know, love and respect a genuine character as colourful as Bill Morgan, the experience of his memory can never truly be over. In fact, the stories that his remarkable life has created, similar to the historical courthouse tales in his book, will exponentiously grow in legend throughout the future because of the absolutely irrepresible and now irreplaceable Bill Morgan.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the son of Max Goldblatt who was a popular Dallas, Texas city councilman and a life long friend and neighbour of Bill Morgan.