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A tribute to Morris 'Morrie' Turner

Remembering a personal 'role model'

By Manning Peterson, staff writer
On March 6, 2014

  • Midfielder Andre Delgado attempts to get the ball away from Yuba College defender Erik Soli (left) and midfielder Jonathan Garcia during Friday's game at home. The game ended in a 2-2 tie. Sam Attal / The Advocate
  • Midfielder Andre Delgado attempts to get the ball away from Yuba College defender Erik Soli (left) and midfielder Jonathan Garcia during Friday's game at home. The game ended in a 2-2 tie. Sam Attal / The Advocate

Today is Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. I'm hanging out at the African-American Museum and Library in Oakland (AAMLO). My outfit from head to toe is Cal blue and gold to give props to my pal, role model and mentor Morrie Turner.
Morrie was one of the seven founders of AAMLO. It was created in 1994 via a unique public/private partnership of the Oakland Public Library and the Northern California Center for African-American History and Life. AAMLO is now recognized as one of America's premier institutions on African-American art, history and culture west of the Mississippi.
Morrie was an ex-officio Golden Bear backer and advocate having lived most of his life in Berkeley rooting for and encouraging students, staff, faculty, sports teams and doing research at the Cal campus libraries. He was a self-educated man who loved libraries.
Morrie passed away peacefully on Jan. 25 due to renal failure complications. He had been having hemodialysis treatment therapy four hours every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for three and a half years.
I called Morrie on Dec. 11 to wish him happy 90th birthday, and asked, "How are you doing dancing with the dialysis machine?"
He never once complained about his therapy. He simply answered, "I didn't enjoy it, but it beats the hell out of the alternative. My doctor told me to do dialysis or die a slow painful death in six months. I'm not John Wayne and I may be a lot of things, but stupidity isn't one of my character defects."
The last time I saw Morrie in person was Saturday, April 14, 2012. It was a sweet, sunny spring afternoon. Morrie had made the trip from West Sacramento with his lovely life companion Karol Trachtenberg to share his experience, strength and hope as an American history griot and pioneer. He planned to autograph copies of his latest book, "Black Sports Heroes," during the celebrity auction.
We met on the second floor of the AAMLO building which is a two story yellow brick historical site located on the southwest corner of West Fourteenth and Jefferson streets, one block north of Preservation Park.
He cautiously rolled his four-wheeled aluminum walker and proudly pointed to his photo plaque on the east end of the north wall across from the elevator.
"Those are the original seven founders and trustees of AAMLO. I'm one of the two who are still alive. I lived to see my dream of AAMLO become a reality and for that I am truly blessed and grateful," he said solemnly.
Morrie and I first met on June 2, 1983. My job was a commentary column writer for the California Voice - a now extinct black East Bay-based weekly paper. At the time, Morrie was the only black cartoonist who was syndicated. The brother was a pioneer in the cartoon world. His strip was seen daily in 250 newspapers worldwide.
Ironically, our personalities meshed immediately and we mutually agreed to continue a series of Thursday afternoon interviews at Morrie's Berkeley home. It was a cozy, single level, three bedroom-one bath with an abundance of western sunlight and pleasant vibes.
Morrie's studio is located in the northwest corner. It formerly was his childhood bedroom.
We had similar experiences involving racial discrimination during our tours in the Army, but we were survivors. I returned to University of Connecticut to earn my B.A. in English literature and Morrie continued with his career as a cartoonist.
"All I ever wanted to do was draw and I wasn't going to let anyone or anything destroy my dream." One of Morrie's outstanding personality traits was courage. He wasn't afraid to tell his truth.
He shared a humorous vignette about his cartoon career path.
"One day I came in the back door and I heard Letha, my wife, talking to her mother. Mom asked Letha, 'What does Morrie do for a living?' Letha answered, 'He's a cartoonist, mom.' Mom answered, 'You told me that when you married him 15 years ago. When is he gonna get a real job?'"
I have been privileged to attend some of the great universities of the world. While formal academia has its place in my world, my two most influential teachers have been self-educated, knowledgeable, humble African-American scholars. One was my father, Rufus Merteley Peterson and the other was Morrie Turner.
How would I describe Morrie? He was an intellectual without being pretentious - an exquisite example of dedication of one's life to community service and global harmony. He was well read and a lover of learning. He had an extensive vocabulary.
Hearing Morrie speak was like listening to my favorite classical music like "Bolero" or "Swan Lake." His voice had a unique lilt.
He had a priceless personality and sense of humor. He loved children and making visits to schools to talk about his career as a cartoonist while drawing caricatures of the kids.
Morrie always reserved space in the corner of his heart to love his son, Morrie, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as passion and compassion for those in the world who were temporarily suffering or needed a hug, especially the young folks.
He was trusted and loved by all he had contact with. I have never heard one negative or harsh comment about Morrie Turner, and that is rare in this world.
Even when he had a legitimate reason to be vindictive, he would turn the other cheek and make a humorous finale out of the situation, like in this humorous story.
"Early in my career I took a few shots at free-lance work. To my surprise, I received a small check from the United Klans of Dixie. I knew they were not my kind of folks and thought about how I could make my case and race known to them. So, I endorsed the check over to the NAACP and took it to their Oakland branch office.
"I would have given five years salary to see the look on the pointed-head cracker who was the financial manager when he looked at that canceled check," he said, followed by a loud laugh.
Ionce asked Morrie what he would be if he weren't a cartoonist? He smiled and said, "I've never considered any other kind of employment career. How can you beat being your own boss, setting your own daily schedule and living your dream everyday? Work, especially manual labor, and I have never been friends.
"When I was 25 years old I decided the best and only way to avoid work is to love what you do so that it is not considered work. I'm like Martin Luther King Jr. I let my dreams motivate me and I walk my path in faith."
Morrie and I collaborated in the world of cartoons for 30 years cranking out daily humor history. His unique innovative approach focused on a culturally diverse group of youngsters that included kids who had physical and auditory special needs and challenges.
Morrie performed all the graphics and drawing duties while creating 90 percent of the humor dialogue. Sid Shafer's steady hand made our words come alive as legible print. I contributed 10 percent of the annual dialogue creations.
We shared our joy as witnesses to American history on Nov. 4, 2008 when Barack Obama was elected as the 44th president of the United States and first African-American president in history.
On Nov. 6, we had our Thursday confab. We stood on Morrie's porch in the warm autumn sun hugging, laughing and crying in between whooping and screams of joy. It was one of those times that make black folks tend to shout.
I said, "I never thought I would ever see a black president in my lifetime." Morrie answered, "I never dared to dream it, but you never know. Like H.L. Mencken said, 'Never underestimate the intelligence of the American public.'"
A week after Morrie's 90th birthday I called him. "I have a question I've never asked you." He answered, "I'll give it my best shot."
"What would you like as an epitaph on your gravestone?" I asked. He said, "First of all I don't plan to be buried when I die, but if I did it would be one of two choices.
"The first is: 'I want to be remembered as having been a blessing rather than a curse to the world, or (the second) Keep the Faith.'"
That was how he always ended our conversations by phone. If it was at the conclusion of our Thursday meetings, we hugged and he smiled before saying, "Keep the faith."
Friends are one of our most precious gifts and blessings. I am living a life with an abundance of blessings as I sit here in the warm sun on the Contra Costa College campus just below the Applied Arts Building.
I'm saying the Serenity Prayer and thanking God for the gift of Morrie in my life. He was my life mentor and a role model for living a life of humane excellence by unconditionally sharing his laughter, love and spiritual humanitarian philosophy.
He was an exceptional human being in addition to being an extremely funny man and silent muckraker.
There is no official correct way to grieve. Grieving is essential to the healing and growth processes. I'll let periodically reading my cartoon portfolio be the medicine to get me well as I move through my world of grief.
"Smiling and laughing are the keys to happiness, my brother, as you keep the faith," Morrie would tell me. I can live with that.
Thanks Morrie. 

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