Readers nationwide say goodbye to Willie Morris

August 22, 1999
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

It was with great sadness that I read recently of the death of a man I never met.

Willie Morris, the author of "My Dog Skip," a silly, charming, wonderful dog book/memoir about growing up in Yazoo City, Miss., died Aug. 2, 1999, at age 64.

Morris graduated from Yazoo City High School in 1952 and left his home state for University of Texas at Austin. He won a Rhodes Scholarship and studied history at Oxford University. Later he returned to Texas where he edited a crusading liberal weekly newspaper before moving to New York City. There, he was named associate editor of Harper's in 1963. He was named editor-in-chief four years later, thus becoming the youngest editor of the nation's oldest magazine.

He moved back to Mississippi in 1980. Morris wrote more than a dozen books, both fiction and nonfiction, and had plans to write a book on baseball with his son at the time of his death. His 1995 memoir, "My Dog Skip," has been made into a movie to be released later this year.

A reader, Harry Boswell, was kind enough to send me clips from the Jackson, Miss., Clarion-Ledger detailing the life and times of Morris, a Southerner who lived much of his life in New York City before returning home to his roots.

"My perception of Willie Morris came not so much from his writings, but from the way in which he used his popularity," Boswell said. "He could move in the highest literary circles, yet you could also easily envision sitting on the front porch with him, watching the sun set on another hot Mississippi afternoon, talking about the weather, and life, and why the tomatoes aren't setting flowers this year. He wasn't blind to the problems that come with growing up Southern and white, but he tried to show that it didn't have to be that way. He made folks feel OK about loving Mississippi."

Plus, he was a darn good writer. Few writers make me laugh aloud, but Morris could do it by describing the hilarious adventures he had with Skip, his black and white smooth-haired fox terrier.

For instance, Morris taught Skip to play football and drive a car. Yes, sir.

"I cut the lace on a football," explained Morris, "and taught Old Skip how to carry it in his mouth, and how to hold it so he could avoid fumbles when he was tackled. I instructed him how to move on a quarterback's signals, to take a snap from center on the first bounce, and to follow me down the field. 'Look at that dog playin' football,' someone passing by would shout."

Teaching Skip to drive was only slightly more difficult.

"Cruising through the fringes of town, I would spot a group of old men standing around up the road. I would get Skip to prop himself against the steering wheel, his black head peering out of the windshield, while I crouched out of sight under the dashboard. Slowing the car to 10 or 15, I would guide the steering wheel with my right hand while Skip, with his paws, kept it steady. As we drove by the Blue Front Café, I could hear one of the men shout: 'Look at that ol' dog drivin' a car!' "

Skip wasn't Lassie-perfect. He was a good sport, but he had his limits. One day Morris and a buddy decided to play a trick on Skip, who loved above all to fetch. Morris and his friend threw the stick for Skip to retrieve, then hid in a tree.

"It took him half an hour to find us. We watched with superior smirks and stifled laughter as he dropped the stick and roamed everywhere in his search for us, looking on top of the garage and inside the toolshed and in the gullies abutting the alley, even going into Mrs. Graeber's back porch and into her wisteria vines in his quest. When he finally located us in the tree he became extremely angry. He refused to let us out of that tree. Every time one of us descended, he snapped at our feet with his long white teeth. We sought to soothe him with assuaging talk: 'You're a good old boy, Skip,' but we might just as well have been courting Hitler or Tojo or Mussolini. Since no one was around to come to our rescue, we were trapped up there for over two hours until Skip got tired and dozed asleep."

The jokes he played on his New York friends were only a little more elevated. When his good friend David Halberstam made the best-seller list with "The Best and the Brightest," the rotund Morris called him pretending to be the diet-doctor author just ahead of him on the list. He suggested that they collaborate on a book to be called "The Biggest and the Fattest."

It makes me laugh again just to read of those silly adventures. Thank you, Willie Morris. I'm sorry we never met.

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