Friday, January 29, 2010

This makes me so sad

Former Greene County Sheriff Willie Morris died yesterday, apparently a suicide. Willie is a figure that looms large in my life - he was the sheriff when I started my newspaper career and the first lawman I really got to know. There are a lot of people in the world described as Larger Than Life, but Willie really deserved the title.

He was a champion weight lifter - and as a result a huge man physically - with no real law enforcement experience when he ran for office in 1983. He had been a professional painter and a bar bouncer. He said he just got fed up with the crime and disorder under the old sheriff and figured he needed to do something to make the county a better place.

And he did. He clamped down hard on the gunplay that made little rural Greene County a hotspot of homicides - there were no killings between the time he took office and late 1993. He delighted in drug raids - Greene County is ideal marijuana territory and Willie loved bounding out across dirt roads to pounce on some hidden pot field. And he became famous for running speed traps and drunken driving checkpoints. Drinking and driving had once been a weekend pass time in Greene, but it turned into a very bad idea in his county.

Willie was far from perfect as sheriff, of course. Because he had no professional law enforcement background, he managed more by enthusiasm than by proper methods. He didn't seem to pay much attention to legal niceties and he had no time at all for the sheriffs in nearby counties, many of whom were former State Troopers. He thought they were stuffy and they thought he was a dangerous loose cannon. And he did have a bad, bad temper. He legendarily beat up his brother Clyde, who was just as strong and big-hearted as Willie but had a little trouble with the bottle and spent a fair bit of time on the wrong side of the Law (and as a result, on the wrong side of Willie).

There were a lot of people in Greene who thought Willie was corrupt or incompetent. I doubt that though - I certainly never saw any evidence to back up the corruption rumors and the crime stats certainly speak for themselves in terms of Willie's effectiveness, however unconventional (and perhaps even occasionally unconstitutional) his methods.

The guy I knew had a heart as big as his muscles. He was more than kind and understanding with me, a young, out of place, inexperienced reporter. He expected a lot from his men, but he was always willing to give them a second chance, sometimes too much of a second chance.

And he was brave and dedicated to Greene County. He took a shotgun blast to the face one day in 1991 while helping a woman leave her abusive husband. The doctors down at UVA hospital told me that the main reason he even survived was the thick ropes of muscle under his skin - that blast would have killed me, or most other humans. The doctors never were able to remove all the pellets - they were lodged too close to his spine to safely remove. I know Willie suffered horrible pain the rest of his life from that. I don't know if that had anything to do with his sad end, but it wouldn't surprise me.

Of all the things I'll remember about him, though, it is his hands. He had huge, gnarled, strong hands. When you shook hands with Willie, you knew it. He loved to look good in a crisp brown uniform, with his black belt polished to a fine shine. He'd stand there proudly with those big hands planted firmly on his holster and radio. That picture is as clear in my mind as the day I was there.

Like this:

This is a photo I took of Willie, probably on some drug raid, some time in mid-1990. He was absolutely in his prime, months before the shooting. It's a shock to realize he's about the same age here that I am now. And this is how he will always be fixed in my mind.

Here's a profile of him I wrote in 1990 as part of a big series trying to explain to everyone what their five main elected officials, known as Constitutional Officers, actually did for a living.

Those years I spent in Greene loom large in my life and my memory. And Willie was a big part of it. He's a big figure in some of my favorite journalism stories. That story about the day he was shot was technically complicated, for example, by the fact that all three main characters - the sheriff, the woman, and her husband the shooter - were named Morris. And to complicate matters, Willie was related to Mrs. Morris but not Mr. Morris. Try sorting that one out in print sometime.

Willie also uttered my favorite line about law enforcement. One day we were talking about some crime story I was writing and I asked him about something stupid the criminals had done that had given them away. He leaned across the desk and looked me closely in the eye and said, "When smart people begin committing crimes you and I are in big trouble."

I haven't seen or talked to Willie in maybe 15 years, but I think of him often. And now I'm going to miss him.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Haiti, brought home

I enjoy reading The New Yorker - its a great magazine, well written, stupendously edited, often informative and thought provoking (though I do wish they'd get rid of Malcolm Gladwell and Anthony Lane, but that's just me).

But never, in all my decades of reading the magazine, has New Yorker brought me to tears. This is the single best piece I have ever read in the magazine:

Haiti, the Earthquake, and my family

Friday, January 22, 2010

Life in a cube farm

It's been many years since I actually worked in an office, but I was reminded this morning that there are certain patterns and habits that are common to all, particularly the strange rituals and obsessions that develop around the group lunch.

On a local discussion group, we were talking about the fate of the space formerly occupied by Susanna Foo, an excellent high-end Chinese restaurant that used to be an institution in Philadelphia. But Susanna Foo herself got tired of running the place and closed it down last year. Now the Mexican food chain Chipolte is eying the location, adding yet another semi-fast food Mexican lunch place to the already crowded niche in Center City Philly.

One poster observed that there must be a demand for such a place since there are so many of them already in the area and all seem crowded. "It's a pretty popular businessperson's lunch-hour," he said.

Another poster, known only as The Count, then responded with a story that simply crystallizes everything about life in a downtown office:

In my office, that would be an understatement.

There is a group of women in my office (20's, 30's) who declare a Qdoba Day about once a month or so.

It's insane.

The declaration usually begins with an email blast with "Qdoba!!!!!!Today!!!!!!" in the subject line.

Followed by, "We'll meet in the lobby at 12:15!!!! Don't be late!!!!!!" (Usually done in 64 font and multiple colors).

For the remainder of the morning the women will walk in and out of each other's offices and discuss what they are going to order, how much they love Qdoba, and whether they would rather have a Qdoba Burrito or 7 new pairs of Uggs.

No work gets done on Qdoba Day.

Around 11:45 begins the parade to the bathroom as the women go as a group to freshen up and re-apply make-up for Qdoba.

They will return from Qdoba around 2:00 and spend the rest of the day talking about how if Qdoba was a man they'd marry it.

It's amazing. No other lunch place anywhere in the city gets this type of reaction. Not Marathon, not Pietro's, not Oyster House, not Happy Rooster, not Shiroi Hana, not Good Dog.

In fact, if I offered them a choice between a free lunch at Parc and lunch at Qdoba I think they would take Qdoba.

I haven't enjoyed a life-in-the-office story so much in years.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A sense of adventure

My youngest son is a bit of a handful. He dashes at the world at top speed with his head down, ready to bust through whatever is in his way.

He's in First Grade this year and just beginning to have serious tests and homework. Earlier this week he said he had a spelling test.

"Oh, don't worry," he explained. "I don't study. I want the test to be harder."