The World Has Lost Another Giant: Michael Morrison, 1948-2017

The World Has Lost Another Giant: Michael Morrison, 1948-2017

Michael A. Morrison passed away on Sunday, May 14, 2017, at his residence in Lafayette, Indiana. A professor at Purdue University for twenty-five years, Mike was a cherished colleague, scholar, teacher, and friend.

After serving in the United States Air Force as a Sergeant during the Vietnam War era, Mike attended college in his home state of Michigan before taking up graduate study at the University of Michigan under J. Mills Thornton. It was there that he met his future wife, historian Nancy Gabin, whom he married in 1984.

From 1991 to 2016, Mike served as a professor in the Department of History at Purdue University. To say that he was a beloved teacher is beyond an understatement. Students were partial to his U.S. history survey, often warning others about the prospects of sitting in the front row. Doing so made one likely to be bumped into or jostled as he launched into one of his meandering walks in the midst of explaining the sectional crisis or some other crucial period. If they enjoyed the survey and his Jacksonian America class, they lined up in droves to take his signature course–Society, Culture, and Rock & Roll. Generations of Boilermakers who had never heard of Bob Dylan or knew anything about British punk instantly became cooler and hipper–not to mention steeped in the rich social, political, and cultural context of the mid-twentieth century. In addition to his regular teaching load, he nearly always had at least one–if not more–history honors student or freshman scholar each semester. Mike’s classroom accolades were not confined to his students. He rightfully earned nearly every teaching award possible. He was the recipient of the College of Liberal Arts Teaching Excellence Award and Purdue University’s Charles B. Murphy Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award–the highest honor for teaching at the university. In 1998, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching named him Indiana Professor of the Year. In 2003, Mike was inducted into Purdue’s Book of Great Teachers. The list goes on and on–but you get the picture. Students adored him, and more importantly, came to appreciate the larger world around them.

If Mike often taught about rock and roll or punk rock, his peers in the field knew him for his specialization in 19th century U. S. political history. In 1997, he published Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press). The debate over slavery in the territories, he argued, proved the central catalyst for the war. Tracing the origins of the sectional fissure from the annexation of Texas through the secession winter of 1860-61, he deftly demonstrated the ways in which politicians throughout the nation continued to harken back to the Revolution for legitimacy. Sectionalism did not flourish because of a clash of cultures, he insisted in an argument that has become a mainstay of the historiography, but rather North and South disagreed about slavery.

While Mike had one foot in the Civil War era, the other was solidly situated in the Early Republic. In 1989, he became an assistant editor of the Journal of the Early Republic before joining John L. Larson as a co-editor in 1994. For a decade, the two steered the course of field’s top journal, bringing their expertise to bear on a generation of scholars. In recognition of his contributions and stature in the field, last year Mike was named president-elect of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR). No doubt he will be deeply missed at this year’s conference in July.

Ever the teacher, Mike’s reach extended well beyond the banks of the Wabash River. He regularly served as a faculty member in summer leadership programs, and along with John Larson, directed an NEH summer seminar for university and college professors on the Early Republic at the Library Company on several occasions. He edited numerous collections on the Early Republic and contributed pieces on the Mexican War and Manifest Destiny to projects such as Virginia Tech’s Essential Civil War Curriculum project.

Although I was familiar with his work as a graduate student, I first met Mike more than eleven years ago during my AHA interview for Purdue. I remember well walking into that hotel suite in Philadelphia where I was greeted by Mike, his wife Nancy Gabin, and Robert May. It was obvious this was going to be a congenial committee, but Mike instantly set the tone: serious and professional with just enough levity to make even an AHA interview enjoyable. As we began, he offered me a bottle of water. Surely it was my nerves that made me quip something about how at the University of Richmond their bottled water was labeled “Spider Water,” but Mike ran with it, suggesting that they dared not attempt such labels at Purdue, as it would have to be called “Purdue Pee.” The ever-gracious Nancy smiled and rolled her eyes just a bit at her colleague/husband, reassuring me that I would find Mike’s humor a staple in the department. And I did. We all did.

When my husband and I arrived in Indiana later that year, Mike and Nancy proved to be the welcoming colleagues that the interview had suggested. I often stopped by his office my first few years, where he shared musings on the field or teaching, providing me with copies of his syllabi and suggestions on assignments. When I once asked about his success in teaching the U.S. survey, he quipped that it was “attributable to volume and animation.” As the Director of Undergraduate Studies (for more years than I’m sure he cared to remember), he fielded more than his share of questions from me. More often, he imparted stories about his kids, both Natty and Katie of whom he was incredibly proud, as well as his four-legged children. Both Nancy and Mike lavished love on the cats, and they graciously agreed to open their home to one of the kittens my mother had found in our barn back in Virginia. We brought the tiny gray tabby back to Indiana, and Mike quickly became devoted to Dill – short for Dylan. Not so awfully long ago, I received an email from Mike recounting some of Dill’s antics in his usual droll manner.

Perhaps it’s Mike’s emails that I, and likely many of my colleagues, will miss most. He was wont to send YouTube videos on topics such as cannibalism at Jamestown as well as long diatribes on the insanity that can be academia. But he always ended his missives with his initials. “MAM.” He was a generous and compassionate soul. MAM is already deeply missed.

Caroline Janney

Caroline E. Janney is professor of history at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (2008) and Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (2013) as well as co-editor with Gary W. Gallagher of Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign (2015). She serves as a co-editor of the University of North Carolina Press’s Civil War America Series and is the past president of the Society of Civil War Historians.

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