Joseph Morrison

Joe Morrison 5/28/1918-11/11/1970

Joe's parents were Morris and Rose (Spitz) Lederman. They moved to Yonkers when he was very young. The parents had a tailor shop in Yonkers. Joe’s father died when he was quite young. Joe had one sister, Ruth, who passed away in the first decade of the 2000s.

Joe's first professional goal was to be a playwright. One of the premier colleges for theater at that time was UNC-Chapel Hill, which had the second oldest academic Dramatic Art department in the nation. This is what led Joe to break away from the Northeast and to enroll in what seemed a far-off college in the mid-‘30s.

But after about a year in the Drama program, Joe gravitated to what was then a very small Department of Journalism headed by a charismatic former newspaperman, O.J. “Skipper” Coffin. Coffin was very impressed by Joe’s writing talents and became a mentor and "almost a second father" to his undergraduate student. He encouraged him to get some practical newspaper experience after graduation, and suggested that his career might be enhanced with a change of surname. It was at this point that Joe legally changed his last name while still honoring his father by taking the name "Morrison".

Serving in the military during World War II mainly in this country but with a stint of about six months overseas, Joe came back to New York and met Pearl, the niece of his mother’s second husband. Pearl and Joe married in September 1946 when he was about to return to Chapel Hill as a junior faculty member in the Journalism Department.

A new dean was appointed who worked to elevate Journalism from a department to a separate school within UNC. Part of his plan was to staff the new school with persons with academic credentials beyond the B.A. degree. Joe saw that he would need to go on for an M.A. and, subsequently the Ph.D., if he wanted to continue in the academic career that he had come to love.

Columbia University offered him a prized fellowship to work for his M.A. degree in History. In just one year, living across the river in New Jersey, he completed his thesis under the tutelage of famed historian Henry Steele Commager, who encouraged him to go on for the Ph.D. He had returned to teach at UNC but was able to arrange to enroll in the History graduate program at Duke, where he completed his dissertation in only two years. He remained on the UNC Journalism faculty until his death. He was the author of several biographies of famous Southern journalists, including Josephus Daniels and W.J. Cash. An annual monetary award in his name is given to the Journalism student, undergraduate or graduate, who distinguishes himself or herself in the study of history.

One memorable event in Joe’s life outside of academia was his being a contestant on the quiz show, “Twenty-One,” where he appeared in the late 1950s. His reputation for both erudition and integrity was untarnished by his having been a contestant only shortly after the appearance on the program of Charles Van Doren, whose unprecedented winnings were subsequently discredited in a rigging scandal.

When Joe and Pearl first set up married life in Chapel Hill, they lived for a short time in "Skip" Coffin's home. Then they lived for awhile in married faculty post-war housing in Victory Village near the UNC Hospital. Finally, they moved to a new neighborhood of more substantial faculty housing near Victory Village. Pearl continued to live in their home on Whitehead Circle.

There were only a handful of Jews on the faculty at UNC when Joe first joined it. The combined Durham-Chapel Hill Jewish community was dominated by non-academic business families. And until their son, Peter, was near bar mitzvah age, Hillel was the main center for the Morrisons' Jewish life. In the early '60s, they joined Beth El, which at that time was gradually becoming a more comfortable home for university and research-organization professionals.