Source: "Between You and Me: Bring Me Flowers" (by Carroll Leggett), Metro Magazine (November 2004). www.metronc.com (accessed April 2008).
Bring me flowers
By Carroll Leggett
BRING ME FLOWERS
Drive east from Sanford on 421 and the Paul Green Highway will run you right into the old Harnett County courthouse that now sits stripped and abandoned in what used to be the middle of downtown Lillington. The town has shifted north a few miles to what locals call “Lillington Crossroads,” a place that once was home to little more than Robert Johnson’s honest-to-god country store—the only place whose chittlins my folks trusted; the county’s largest cemetery; and Matthews Oil Company, now empty and in disrepair.
Reigning supreme there now among fast-food restaurants, a Food Lion, car dealerships and gas stations is the new Harnett County courthouse, a structure of majestic proportions. Once it was sited, businesses and county offices clustered around it, and the axis of the town of Lillington shifted dramatically.
But there is now hope for the old downtown that has sputtered along and seen some landmarks, such as the old Lillington Hotel, disappear. Lillington voters recently passed liquor by the drink—the bootleggers must all be dead—and a new steak house is opening where pharmacist Bill Randall once dispensed medicine. It’s comforting to think that folks again may leave this location feeling no pain.
Other eateries are on the way. As Lillington attempts, like Lazarus, to rise from the dead, the marker honoring Revolutionary War hero and town namesake, General Alexander Lillington, that has long stood on the corner where Hwy. 421 jogs left toward the Cape Fear River, no longer stands sentinel alone. It has company now. A marker of like design now honors Harnett County native and modern-day patriot, Robert Burren Morgan—Clerk of Court, State Senator, Attorney General of North Carolina, and United States Senator—and my boss of 13 years and friend of four decades.
Lillington mayor, Grover Smith, a childhood friend of the Senator and a distinguished educator that many remember as Headmaster at Raleigh’s Ravenscroft School, is largely responsible. Grover rallied the troops and worked out details that allowed the “state historical marker” to be erected with the seal of the town of Lillington, thus skirting the rule that one must be dead for 10 years before being so honored.
The mayor orchestrated a program at the Harnett County Library honoring the Senator and an unveiling of the marker that stands just a few hundred yards away. Unfortunately by the time dates had been juggled a number of times, the day of the event found me in Mississippi—a far piece from Lillington.
I called the Senator to tell him, and in turn he asked if I would write something to be read at the event. I demurred. That would be presumptuous, I argued.
At the same time, I recommended that our mutual friend and his former law partner Judge Gerald Arnold, now an executive with Lawyers Mutual Insurance, be the keynote speaker. He predates me with the Senator by many years, just as do people like his former professional associates Peggy Stewart Seifert and Judy Breeden.
“Well, no doubt about it, Gerald is a real orator,” he mused.
“Yes,” I said, and laughed. “And you know what they say about Southern orators?”
“They say that between bad oratory and fried food, it is a wonder the South has survived.”
This old saw drew a chuckle, and he agreed that Gerald should make comments. Shortly my phone rang. It was Gerald. He started to plead for help, and I laughed and confessed that it was I who had thrown ole Brer Rabbit in the brier patch.
“I suspected you had something to do with it, Leggett,” he said in a voice that expressed both amusement and resignation.
“But I want to help by giving you some material—some stories—to use,” I said. “Don’t you think it would be presumptuous of me to send something to be read?”
“I have to say I do,” he answered. Honesty is a primary tenet of our friendship. That settled it for me.
“Please tell people about his long-time connection with the Smithsonian Institution,” I said. “That’s something even people who know him well generally don’t know.”
People are awed by the Smithsonian Institution, and for good reason. More people visit it each year than any other museum in the world.
Few people know that Robert Morgan has been involved with the Smithsonian for 25 years or so. When Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) was Majority Leader of the United States Senate, he appointed then Senator Morgan to the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian, one of the most prestigious appointments in the nation. He soon was appointed to the Oversight and Review Committee and continued to serve until this year. He became good friends with the chairman, Chief Justice Warren Burger, and while a Regent, Robert was appointed to the board of the National Portrait Gallery, a part of the Smithsonian family, and served as Chair. He is still a member of the board.
A lot of folks in Harnett County still remember that when Robert Morgan broke into politics, he was referred to as “Little Robert” to distinguish him from Judge Robert Morgan, who unlike “Little Robert,” was tall and lanky.
Here is a Wendell Ford story relevant to the “Little Robert” appellation. Senator Ford, the colorful former governor from Kentucky, was our neighbor down the hall in DC. One evening during a heated Senate session, he stopped by to visit.
“Senator, what’s happening on the floor?” I asked.
“The fur is flying,” Senator Ford said. “Senator Morgan is trying to get recognized to speak, but the presiding officer can’t tell that he is standing up.”
As a Senator, Robert Morgan was in the company of many famous people. But even though he loves history, he always has been somewhat oblivious to contemporary culture.
Carolyn Bason Long, wife of former Senator Russell Long (D-LA), is from Caswell County and an old friend of the Senator. One day we were in the Senator’s dining room when Carolyn came over to the table.
“Roooooooooooobert,” she said, “Ya’ll come over to my table. I want you to meet someone.” We followed her.
“Robert, this is my dear friend Angela Lansbury. Angela, this is my old friend Bob Morgan. He’s our senator from North Carolina.”
“Pleased to meet you, Ms. Lansbury,” Robert said, “And what do YOU do?”
When Catfish Hunter’s pitching helped San Francisco win the World Series, he skipped the victory parade and flew home to a fish fry at the American Legion Post in Hertford. It was all over the news, and Catfish was fined, I think.
Then Attorney General Robert Morgan was the speaker at the fish fry. But, as you can imagine, Catfish was the center of attention. The Post Commander brought him over and proudly introduced him. “Robert, I want you to meet Catfish Hunter.” I already had pen and paper ready for an autograph.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Hunter. And what do you DO?” Robert asked.
Robert Morgan doesn’t know much about movie stars and such, but he has gotten to know a few, like Lorne Green from TV’s Bonanza and Mary Travers of Peter, Paul, and Mary.
But still they are no big deal... usually that is.
Right after he arrived in Washington, Robert and wife Katie were invited to the White House. As they entered, Robert said, “Now, Katie, there will be a lot of famous people here, so just be cool about it. Don’t run over and talk to every movie star you see.”
Katie said, “We walked through the door, and Robert looked across the room. ‘My Lord, Katie, there is Ginger Rogers,’ he said, and he hightailed it across the ballroom to introduce himself and left me standing there with my coat still on my arm.”
Robert Morgan has an independent streak and does not suffer fools gladly. He wore his hair rather long for a good while. Apparently it annoyed some folks. One Sunday a little lady tapped him on the shoulder in church, leaned over the pew and hissed into his ear, “When are you going to cut that hair?”
I understand the Senator whispered back, “When I get good and ready, thank you.” Between you and me, I think that was a pretty good answer.