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Centenarian Newspaper Columnist Leaves Us Many Storytelling Lessons

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A man I've long admired dearly passed away at the end of October. I first met John C. Morris when I was working as a reporter for The Ohio County Messenger in Beaver Dam, KY in 2001 or so. He had contacted our offices and wanted to become a newspaper columnist. He didn't have any experience in writing, but we decided to take a bet on a rookie author.

John didn't look like most neophyte columnists, though, mostly because of his life experience. He was 101 years old. And, throughout the past few years, this man -- who never used a computer a day in his life, as far as I can tell -- taught me some valuable lessons about media and about storytelling. When he died a few weeks ago, Morris closed the final chapter on the unlikely story of a man who was surely the world's oldest newspaper columnist.

To most people, John C. Morris was Rev. Morris. He'd spent his life traveling around the country as a Christian evangelist, and he'd spent several years living and preaching in Las Vegas before he moved back to Kentucky to live with his family at the beginning of this decade. John realized that his age wouldn't allow him to stand behind a pulpit any longer to deliver his messages, but he felt that he still had many stories to tell. He delivered his last official sermon in 2003.

Some of Morris' stories were religious, inspired sermons that he no longer could preach from the pulpit. They appeared on the religion page of our newspaper. Other times, he would write stories about how much life has changed since he was born in Arkansas in 1899. A life that spanned three centuries, 19 U.S. presidencies, two world wars, and innovations from the first mass-produced car and the maiden flight of the Wright Brothers to the popularization of cinema, radio, television, and the Internet gave many stories to be told.

Whatever the subject, there was no questioning John's enthusiasm. He wrote his "Something to Think About" column for The Ohio County Messenger until the paper merged with its sister publication, The Ohio County Times-News, in 2004. He then started writing for the Times-News.

By this time, he was living in a nursing home. However, he kept a typewriter by his bed, and he saw that typewriter as his portal to the world. Family members told me that it was that ability to sit up and write that kept John going, even as his health failed him. He had so many stories left that he wanted to tell. His family told me he had paper loaded in his typewriter at the time of his death, ready as always to put his thoughts into writing.

In 2004, the Society of Professional Journalists awarded John for his phenomenal story at our regional meeting on the campus of Western Kentucky University. His family was there to receive the award on his behalf. Local Bowling Green, KY-based station WBKO named Morris one of their "Hometown Heroes" for his work around this time as well. He was commended by the Kentucky senate and house of representatives and bestowed the honor of Kentucky Colonel.

These were all proud moments for him, but rather than seeing it as the bookend of his unlikely stint as a columnist, the award just willed John to keep on writing, which he did when his health allowed, up until recently.

John C. Morris was less than a month shy of his 109th birthday when he passed away in late October, but his passion for storytelling is something we can all learn from. When I interviewed John for a piece in 2005, he said to me, "I am trying to do the best I can with what I've got. I try to tell the truth with everything I write out. Sometimes it is a mighty poor best, but I always try to do the best I can."

For me, there are multiple takeaways.

First, that simple goal -- to tell the truth -- should be in the heart of all of us. It is what should drive every professional journalist or columnist, to be sure, but likewise academics and public relations professionals (the two other hats I wear). No matter what the pejorative stereotypes portray, the job of the public relations professional is to tell the story of clients in transparent, honest, and straight-forward ways. Like Mr. Morris, we all might occasionally have a "mighty poor best," but we should strive to always do the best we can. (I think a little humility is needed in the world of PR as well, where sometimes the penchant for hyperbole can overwhelm you.)

Second, the skill of taking stories across multiple media formats -- what we call "transmedia" in the Convergence Culture Consortium -- is nothing original to the Internet. John C. Morris and other storytellers from before the "digital age" are examples of people who took their craft from the live event setting to the written form, and often to radio and television as well. (See my interview with a Baptist minister from Kentucky about preaching across multiple media forms at the Convergence Culture Consortium blog here...That preacher, Darrell Belcher, shares how his craft differs from a sermon in front of a live congregation to the radio format.)

Third, and most importantly of all, the skill of good storytelling remains the same. The simplest stories are always the best. As I wrote about Edward Albee's Occupant back in the summer, digital tools are great -- but only when they are used to enhance the story. We should always strive to tell our stories as simply and compellingly as possible, only adding bells and whistles if they truly add to the message we're trying to deliver.

Finally, and most importantly, Mr. Morris' story is wholly inspiring. John refused to let his age and his diminishing health stop him from what he felt was his calling. More than that, he tackled that project as if it were wholly unimpressive, never seeming to realize just how in awe we all were of him. He always called me, a man more than 80 years his junior, "sir" or "Mr. Ford." He would give hand-written thank you notes to the nurses who served him breakfast, lunch and supper in the nursing home (and a couple of members of the nursing staff contacted me after his death to share just what an exemplary person he was.)

With Mr. Morris' death, a lot of great knowledge on how to tell a story and reach an audience passed from us. But, for me, his amazing story is an inspiration for my own desire to improve the way we communicate with one another, not just as professional communicators but as human beings.

A version of this post was originally published on Oct. 28 on the PepperDigital blog, where I write regularly. Find more from this story by the Kentucky Press Association.