Herbert O. Morrison (5/14/05) -- (1/10/89) Connellsville1, Pennsylvania
I looked up an old friend that I knew briefly from 1975 to 1978 in Wikipedia only to learn that his biography was sadly lacking because it focused on a few words he declared while he was a WLS Chicago radio announcer during the tragic arrival of the Hindenburg at Lakehurst New Jersey on May 6, 1937. For those words, Morrison is immortalized, but there is much more to the man than that. As one of the pioneers of radio and television in the 20th century, more should become a part of his biography in Wikipedia.
When I returned to West Virginia University in the fall of 1975, I looked for a place to live and found a small cottage in the lakeside development called Cheat Canyon Park, 8 miles East of Morgantown on Highway 73. The development clung to a steep incline overlooking Cheat Lake with a loop drive of 14 properties and 11 homes. The cottage I bought was built in 1928, the same year as a dam formed the lake five miles downriver. The lake covered a crossing of the Cheat River made famous by George Washington in 1784 at Ice’s Ferry, directly below the Park, replaced by a bridge. I bought the cottage from the son of the original owner, retired to Florida with no need for it anymore.
Soon after I arrived, I explored the loop drive and a trail that led beyond for about 100 yards where the trail petered out into a steep drop-off by an old stone fireplace and chimney that stood after a cabin had either deteriorated or burned long ago. I tread that trail with some trepidation because it passed very close to a cottage with a porch and steps that cascaded right to the trail. There was a friendly sign there that said, "Chipmunk Crossing," making me feel a little more comfortable trespassing on the owner's property.
As a newcomer, I was quickly recruited as the community treasurer, because the mostly elderly residents rather disliked the job. Someone asked me to collect the annual assessment and I did, knocking door-to-door and getting to know my neighbors who were very friendly and most willing to pay the assessment.
One neighbor that I didn't get to know was a young graduate of the University who was staying in a log house closest to the lake with some of his buddies. I was told that the property was owned by Mrs. Greer, one of the richest people in the area and that the place was occupied by John Raese, her grandson, who alternately drove a new Corvette, a new Cadillac Eldorado convertible, a new Jeep Cherokee, or his ultra power boat that roared up and down the 6 mile long lake at 70 mph. John Raese recently (11/23/11) lost his bid for Robert C. Byrd’s vacated Senate seat to former Governor Joe Manchin in a runoff race.
Eventually, the president of Cheat Canyon Park, Herb Morrison, and his frail, but beautiful wife, Mary Jane, arrived back from California in their deep blue early 1970s Cadillac DeVille two-door hardtop with a black vinyl roof.. I learned that Herb had been on a tour promoting his part in making the movie, The Hindenburg. Morrison was 70, with white hair, but seemed very healthy and active, striking a very handsome pose that probably came from long years in the spotlight. Herb invited me into his home, the little cottage with the Chipmunk Walk, and shared with me documents about the Park and what I was supposed to do as treasurer.
The cottage was filled with mementos and papers that Herb was cataloging. My younger brother was in high school at the time, writing a paper and wrote me that he wondered if there was any conspiracy in the explosion of the Hindenburg. Herb told me that he didn't know of any conspiracies but gave me a picture that he had taken of the Hindenburg at the Newark Airport that morning before flying down to Lakehurst. The picture had been developed by Herb and was encased in a plastic protector. I sent it along with a news report that Herb gave me to my brother for his paper.
A 93-year-old man, Mr. William Cuthbert, a retired accountant from Jones and Laughlin Steel, lived in the home of his brother, Dr. Frank Cuthbert, former director of music at WVU, on the lot directly below mine. The property was overgrown, so I spoke to Mr. Cuthbert and agreed to mow his lawn along with mine. I later learned that Herb was buying groceries weekly for Mr. Cuthbert and for Gwen Weidebusch, a 73-year-old widow who lived across from me and had macular degeneration so she couldn't drive. Herb also got Cuthbert’s mail when the old man could not longer make the trip to the roadside mailbox.
A young woman rented the house above me from a former CBS correspondent teaching at WVU away in Italy for the summer. She drove their car, a 124 Fiat Spyder. One morning, the hand brake failed and the Fiat came off the wall and into my bathroom wall as I was shaving. Herb came and we piled firewood under the car so a wrecker could pull the car out. Later, Herb worked under the car to get the exhaust back together for her.
That winter, the loop drive iced up, so Herb ordered a truckload of sand. He was inside the truck as it dumped, pushing sand into the spreader with a shovel, when he slipped and fell into the hole, hurting his ankle. That was Herb Morrison, always willing to help, even as he aged.
Herb told me that he had a dance band (he played the banjo) in 1927 when he was 22.1 His band played live on KDKA in Pittsburgh, the first broadcast station in the country. That's where he began to announce songs. Herb never told me what he did in between, but by 1937 he was announcing music and news at WLS Chicago. His reporting of flooding on the Ohio River after a tour on an American Airlines plane earlier that year gave him some recognition as a field news reporter. He was given a bag with a $20,000 anonymous donation for flood victims.1.,2
Morrison wanted to try out new things, and, with American Airlines’ help, convinced WLS to let him cover and record the arrival of the Hindenburg for its second season in May. Herb took along an engineer, Charles Nehlson, to help record the event with a modified Presto record recorder.. Charles had to ride in a second plane because the recording machine weighed 90 pounds and it was too heavy for them both to fly in the same plane.
When they got to Newark, Herb took that photo and several others that I wrote about above. After the crash and Morrison's heroic effort to announce what had happened and save some of the passengers from the fire, he and Nehlson flew back to Newark for their connecting flights back to Chicago. Local airport people got wind that the Nazis were after them and their record of the crash, fearful that Herb had said awful things about Der Fuehrer's prize airship. Herb and Charles were taken to a maintenance hangar where they hid out until their planes arrived.3
On Herb's flight back, his plane landed in Buffalo, New York. Herb told me that he had never been to Buffalo, so he decided to leave the plane so that he could say that he had been there along with other places he had been. As he came down the stairs from the plane, Nazi party members were waiting at the bottom and one came up the stairs and grabbed him. Herb wasn't going to let him get away with it and slugged the man in the jaw before he retreated back into the plane. A news photographer got a shot of Herb punching the guy, and it was featured in newspapers across the country. The movie captured that scene very well and Herb told me he was pleased with the young, handsome man they had chosen to play his part. Believe me, Herb was that handsome, and could have moved from radio to television with ease
When he arrived at Chicago, Herb took the freight elevator to WLS's offices to avoid being spotted by the Nazis going in the front of the building. Before the station played the record, he checked it and saw that it was the right one because of the deep indentation in the wax4 caused by the blast. The next day, Morrison was invited to a Chicago Press Club luncheon. When seated, he was shocked to find out that he was next to the German Consul to Chicago. Herb said that the fellow got up and praised him for saying such nice things about Der Fuehrer's prize airship, the Hindenburg, to Herb's great relief.
During the time I was in West Virginia, I had an opportunity to see the display for the Hindenburg in the Smithsonian. When I told Herb about it, he said that he and Mary Jane had seen it, too. He was glad that they had the original record and not some copy of it, because it had that deep blast groove in the wax.
Soon after, Herb Morrison left WLS with a collection of films of the crash and a copy of the recording and was touring the country sharing their stories with the comedic acrobat Joseph Späh5 who survived the fire by jumping out 20 feet from the tarmac. Herb’s fame got him many short stints in a number of radio stations, mostly in the Pittsburg area.6
By 1939 Morrison was working for Norman G. Baker in Nuevo Laredo at the border blaster station, "The Calliophone Station." Baker invented the Calliope and was known for his cancer cure clinic in Hot Springs he promoted with the station. Herb told me that one Christmas Eve [1939?] he played a long set of Christmas carols. Later, he received a package in the mail from London. A gentleman there had recorded the entire Christmas program and sent the recording back to him. And then one day, in 1940, Herb crossed the Rio Grande to go to work and the Mexican army had shut down the station.
In his Pennsylvania State biography and other accounts, it is noted that Herb served in the Army Air Corps in WW II. Humble as he was, Morrison never told me any war stories. George Jones claims he was a Colonel.
In John Toland's book, The Great Dirigibles: Their Triumphs and Disasters, Herb was working a WJAZ, back in Pittsburgh in 1957.6 He retired to his mother's retirement cottage in Cheat Canyon Park in 1970 and worked with WVU's University Relations Department, helping develop their radio and television academic programs.
Herb told me that his greatest accomplishment was to land at the North Pole. He never told me if he worked as a war correspondent or if he had any part in early television. However, I believe he did.
In October 1988, while on a marathon tour of the eastern United States by car, my girlfriend and I stopped off to see Herb at the cottage. Unfortunately, he wasn't there. Mary Jane told us that he had gone into a nursing home two weeks earlier because of complications with diabetes. I didn't have time to stop and see him in the nursing home because we were due in Dayton that night. Herb Morrison died the following January.
Copyright 2011 © Ronald W. Hull
Notes and Sources
1According to the Pennsylvania State University biography prepared by David Tony in the Spring of 2010, Morrison was born in Connellsville, not Scottsdale.
The New York Times published Morrison’s death on January 10th, rather than the 11th in the Penn State biography.
Morrison may have been a shoe salesman in 1930, but told me he was announcing for his band on KDKA by 1927 (most likely live evening broadcasts). An article by Bill Jaker in Old Time Radio Digest in 1987 from an extensive interview with Morrison reveals and verifies my recollections and statements by others such as George Jones, anonymous blog commenter.
2“At WLS in Chicago, Herb was a music announcer, a job that was later called a disc jockey. He was also the man who announced yacht races on Lake Michigan (once or twice), dished out the celebrity gossip (unwillingly), and did all the mundane duties that no one else wanted to do.” Bill, the Loyal Tubist -- Know Old Time Radio. http://knowotr.blogspot.com/2010/05/herbert-morrison-1905-89.html
3 Some accounts have Charles and Herb taking the train, but Herb’s story about Buffalo has him on a plane. Once again, the Loyal Tubist seems to have it right.: “At the time of the explosion, the word about it did not go out immediately. It was actually a phone call from the man that Herb and Charley met from NBC who called station WEAF that let the folks know in New York that something was wrong. News crews from New York did their best to get to the Lakehurst Naval Air Station (an interesting fact is that both the German and U.S. terminals of the route of the Hindenburg were naval bases). The word went out to WOR, WJZ (which, even though located in the same building, had a different news crew), WABC, WINS, WNEW, WHN, and WMCA (maybe others). They used their own personal vehicles to get to the base. Troopers from the New Jersey State Police had a 10-mile perimeter around Lakehurst sealed off limits from the public. Sabotage was suspected.
As soon as Morrison and Nehlson had what they needed for the report, they tried to look for the man from WEAF to give him the record. They called a taxi to take them back to Philadelphia, put their bags into the trunk, then realized two SS agents were following them. This thwarted their plans of taking the train back to Chicago. They took the first airplane out and arrived home that evening.”
4 Some accounts say the records were coated with lacquer or acetate. Herb told me that it was soft wax, making the blast indentation very deep. I believe that master records from that time were coated with wax, not lacquer or acetate.
5 A very good website, Faces of the Hindenburg, honors Joseph Späh and the other passengers and crew of the Hindenburg that fateful day: http://facesofthehindenburg.blogspot.com/2008/11/joseph-sph.html
6 Several accounts have Herb Morrison starting his broadcasting career at WMMN, Fairmont, WV in 1930. He is in the West Virginia Broadcasting Hall of Fame as a result.
Herbert Morrison, WMMN, WVU professor/Hindenburg [sic] disaster West Virginia Broadcasting Hall of Fame http://jeff560.tripod.com/articles.html
A copy of Radio – Television on June 22, 1953 advertisement shows him as WJAS Radio’s news director with 22 years’ experience.
7 Several accounts have Herb joining WOR in New York after the disaster. I believe that, after he toured the country with Späh, Herb was besieged with offers, leading him to New York, and later, Nuevo Laredo.
Fast Track to Manhood by Thomas P. Griffin describes a Lt. Herbert K. Morrison 0-684381 who was the copilot of a B-24 , Little Lady Joyce II. His girlfriend was Eleanor. MORRISON v. MORRISON 408 F.Supp. 315 (1976) Eleanor MORRISON, Plaintiff, v.
Herbert K. MORRISON and the United States Department of the Air Force, Defendants Civ. A. No. CA-6-75-8. United States District Court, N. D. Texas, San Angelo Division.
February 13, 1976.
Morrison ran for Congress as a Republican in Pennsylvania District 21 and lost, twice, in 1954 and 1956.
“I Have a April 6, 1946 newspaper report showing him as a Colonel and flying into Latrobe, PA airport in a BE-13”