Centenarian Newspaper Columnist Leaves Us Many Storytelling Lessons

By: Sam Ford, PepperDigital

The following is a post I put up on the PepperDigital blog, where I publish regularly in my role as Director of Customer Insights for Peppercom Strategic Communications in New York City. I shared it with Chris, and he invited me to cross-post it here for the Newsroom readers. As a journalist, academic, and PR professional, I believe there are significant takeaways for all three audiences in the inspiring story of Mr. Morris. If you have any thoughts you’d like to share with me on it, please get in touch at sford@peppercom.com. This was originally posted on Oct. 28, 2008.

A man I’ve always admired dearly passed away yesterday. 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.

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.

Some of those 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. Whatever the subject, there was no questioning John’s enthusiasm. He wrote 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, but 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.

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. It was a proud moment 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 this morning, but his passion for storytelling is something all of us in communication can 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 at the heart of all of us. 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. Likewise, we here at Peppercom 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 called “transmedia” at MIT—is nothing original to the Internet. John C. Morris and other storytellers from other eras 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 MIT 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.)

Finally, 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.

With Mr. Morris’ death today, 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 and with companies, not just as public relations professionals but as human beings.

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