The Preservationist

 

Words by Terrell Manasco | Image by Al Blanton

 

From the moment he opens the door of his home and ambles outside to greet me, I am blissfully aware that I’m in the presence of excellence. The gentleman is wearing a ball cap, a woolen pullover sweater, and jeans. His welcoming smile is framed by grayish, well-trimmed whiskers, and his eyes sparkle like flames from a campfire when he grins. His demeanor is so pleasant, so charming and easygoing, that I immediately find myself relaxed and eager to hear his story.

He leads me to a nearby building decorated with several vintage signs bearing the names and logos of businesses whose doorways have not been darkened by a customer in several decades. But inside, I find that his passion is preservation.

As a young boy, Pat Morrison began collecting items such as Army insignias, antique tools, postcards, and Coke bottles. Four decades later, when he and his wife Helen fell in love with Walker County, it seemed that knowing more about the area’s history meant embracing that old childhood fascination of collecting. That thirst for knowledge, love of collecting, and the desire to preserve our history was the genesis of his museum.

“So much of our heritage is being lost and or taken out of Walker County, therefore in the future all our historic memorabilia needs to stay in Walker County,” Morrison explains.

Before we step inside, let’s go back a few years. In 1968, Walker County High School’s new principal, Felix Smallwood, brought in a new coaching staff: head coach Vic Karabasz, defensive coach David Petty, and offensive coach Pat Morrison. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State, Coach Morrison came to Walker County that year, ironically from a town called Jasper, Tennessee.

Coach and Helen intended to stay here for only two years (he had actually accepted a job in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee), but love kept them here.

“We just fell in love with Walker County and decided to stay,” he says earnestly.

From 1968 to 2000, Pat Morrison coached baseball, track, basketball, and served as Walker’s offensive coordinator in football. He took one year off from coaching football and started a boys cross-country and track team, but was persuaded to return to coaching football by head coach Larry Blakeney. He served as Athletic Director his last five years at Walker before retiring in 2000. Even today, many who attended his classes have fond memories of the man who sometimes performed back flips during class when students became drowsy.

These days, the man affectionately and respectfully known as “Coach” Morrison spends his time teaching in other ways. He’s a trustee, deacon, and a Sunday school teacher at New Prospect Baptist Church. He’s the author of two books; Walker County High School Athletics 1920-2000, and Walker County, Alabama, from the Postcard History Series. He’s also a collector of Walker County memorabilia.

I expected a few relics, but I am completely unprepared for what I see when we step through the door. Glass cases line the walls, filled with hundreds of vintage relics: books, letters, badges, military uniforms and caps. On one shelf there are antique hard hats that I recognize as coal miner hats, with lanterns beside them. In one floor case are vintage football helmets. As we leisurely move down the aisles among the display cases, Coach points out a high school ring here, an old sheriff’s badge, or a football pin or Masonic ring there, a photo over there, relating a fascinating story about each one.

As we stroll down the aisles, awash in euphoric waves of nostalgia, I am reminded that Walker County’s history isn’t always pleasant and is occasionally tainted with shame and sadness. In one corner hangs a white robe that once belonged to a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Its purpose here now is not to instill a sense of superiority or fear, but to serve as a painful reminder of the past, to educate us so we may learn from our mistakes, and perhaps to even remind us of how far we’ve come.

I ask him if he has any favorite items. His reply is immediate: “Two glasses from Long’s Drugstore, a whiskey jug and flask from the Palace Saloon, and an 1896 Confederate reunion badge.”

His vast collection has grown steadily over the years, largely through donations, many from former students. “There’s no way I could have purchased all this,” Coach says.

He also appreciates fellow preservationists such as Dr. David Rowland, who has worked to restore old buildings in downtown Jasper. He is a firm believer in preserving our heritage, even loaning out items to the Heritage Center for their exhibits.

The gentleman tells me he loved teaching and coaching so much that he couldn’t wait to get up every morning and go to work. He tells me he considers himself a most blessed person. As I regretfully say goodbye and climb into my car, it occurs to me that Coach Pat Morrison’s life lessons are not limited to Sundays. And it also occurs to me that on this particular day, he is not the most blessed person.

I am. 78

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