Shifting the Gears
Fifty Years of Living the Cardigan Way: Richard D. Morrison, M.D.
By Chris Adams
A Great Honor
On the night I met Richard D. Morrison, M.D., ’50, P’76,’82, I knew only two things about him: he has been serving Cardigan Mountain School as a trustee for over fifty years, and he really enjoys model trains. It was the Heart of the Cougar Dinner, and Cardigan was honoring him with the award for his dedicated service to the School. At the conclusion of the formal ceremony, Head of School Chris Day P’12,’13 presented Dr. Morrison with a custom Lionel train he had commissioned to mark the occasion—painted in green and white, adorned with the Cardigan seal, and named the Cardigan Mountain Express.
Dr. Morrison joined the board in 1969 after trustee Robert Gillette, accompanied by Governor of Vermont Deane Davis, visited him at his home in Essex Junction. He readily accepted, stating that it was a “great honor.”
As a trustee, his first assignment was to research the potential of co-education at Cardigan and advise the board. Working with fellow trustee Walter Smith and Headmaster Norm Wakely, he presented his findings and recommendations to the board in January 1970. Since then, he has advised and guided the School on dozens of issues, especially matters of student and faculty health.
A few months after the Heart of the Cougar Dinner, I made plans to visit Dr. Morrison at his home in Essex Junction, VT, to better understand this accomplished man and his motivation for “continuing Hap’s work in trying to help young boys succeed” as a trustee for fifty years. Sandra Hollingsworth, director of The Campaign for Cardigan 2020, and Judith Solberg, director of archives, joined me. While I hoped to see the Cardigan Mountain Express in action, it was clear our conversation would be about a lot more than models.
I Like To Shift The Gears
As a young boy growing up in Canaan, Dr. Morrison (“Dickie” as he was known then) worked in his family’s drug store. Cardigan Mountain School founder Harold “Hap” Hinman was a regular customer, and upon noting Dickie’s work ethic and learning of his strong academic record, offered him a scholarship to Cardigan. Dr. Morrison would go on to graduate from Cardigan in 1950 and matriculate to New Hampton School and Dartmouth College. After graduating from Dartmouth, he enrolled at the The Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.
After medical school, Dr. Morrison became a family physician and later was affiliated with the Rutland Regional Medical Center and the University of Vermont Medical Center. As of this past spring, at age 84, he was still treating patients at the office he’s owned since the mid-1960s. The story does not end here, though. Dr. Morrison’s full, rich life as a physician has been an extraordinary backdrop and foundation for a lifetime of trying new things— and finding success at most of them.
On the early summer afternoon we visit Dr. Morrison, he is waiting for us on his rear patio. He suggests we begin our visit with lunch and insists on driving.
In the driveway are two vehicles, a large red late-model Ford pickup truck and a yellow Volkswagen Beetle. As Dr. Morrison motions us toward the pickup, I walk past the Beetle, pausing slightly as I notice the gearshift for the manual transmission. Dr. Morrison, sensing what I am thinking, simply says, “I like to shift the gears.”
On the dashboard of the pickup is a dark blue Army National Guard ball cap, and I ask Dr. Morrison when he joined the Guard. “In my fourth year of medical school,” he answers, adding that many of his medical school mentors and fellow students also signed up. He begins to describe his long and distinguished military service, the first of many stories he’ll share during our visit. As he tells it, he first served as a general medical officer for a year or two before being promoted to preventative medical officer. Eventually he was named Brigade Surgeon and ultimately Commander of the Medical Company.
Dr. Morrison was soon dissatisfied with the traditional pathway for doctors in the military. In order to “seek a little more stimulation” in his Guard experience, he applied to armor school, where he learned to drive tanks. By the time he retired from the Guard, he was the executive officer of the brigade.
As he parks the truck, Dr. Morrison winds down his National Guard story, sharing that he fondly remembers driving tanks for two weeks every year, and that he might have enjoyed driving tanks as much or more than treating people, adding gravity to his words when he adds that driving a tank is an “unbelievable, awesome power.”
Smile At It When You Make It
As the four of us enter the Tavern at the Essex Junction Inn for lunch, it’s apparent that it’s not Dr. Morrison’s first time here; he is greeted warmly by the staff while he motions us past a modern oak bar toward a booth in the corner.
Our waitress greets us at the table and introduces herself as Molly. Dr. Morrison breaks the ice by inquiring if we might like to join him in a Rob Roy. Two of us agree, and young Molly cannot hide that she has not before heard of this traditional concoction. Almost anticipating this, Dr. Morrison patiently explains the steps in making a perfect Rob Roy, concluding with a reminder to “smile at it when you make it.”
By the time Molly returns with our Rob Roys, Dr. Morrison is deep into storytelling, relishing both an interested audience and the atmosphere. For the next couple of hours, we are treated to an astounding array of memories: attending Cardigan in the early days, completing medical school and starting a medical practice, meeting his wife Beverly, driving tanks in the National Guard, getting his real estate license and investing in properties in and around Burlington, serving as a Cardigan trustee, serving as board president at New Hampton School, breeding and racing horses, and buying a farm, all while raising four children.
Well, Why Don’t You?
In Cardigan’s early days the School taught horsemanship and riding and kept several horses on campus. During the School’s welcome dinner in 1948, Dr. Morrison’s first night at Cardigan, the boys were invited to go see the horses. Young Dr. Morrison quickly became interested and chose to train with an old cavalry horse named Yankee Doodle, beginning what would become a life-long love of horses.
After graduating from medical school, Dr. Morrison settled in Essex Junction, VT, “because he was too poor to leave,” and began practicing family medicine. There he met a man named Giles Willey, a horse trader, real estate man, and auctioneer. Though Dr. Morrison did not know it as a Cardigan student, Mr. Willey was also the man who had leased horses to Cardigan. Over a decade later the older Willey became an important mentor to Dr. Morrison. Before long, they were making trips to watch harness races at Hinsdale Raceway in New Hampshire, and Willey advised Dr. Morrison on the purchase of his first horse. At first, he was content to be the owner and let others do the racing. Then late one night, when he and his wife were driving home from the track, Dr. Morrison voiced some discouragement that their horse was “never in the thick of it,” adding, “I could do as well as that, probably better.”
His wife’s reply was simple: “Well, why don’t you?” Dr. Morrison quickly set about qualifying for his racing license, first by driving to Messena, NY, and racing on Sunday afternoons at the local horse club. After working his way up through the ranks, his biggest thrill was winning the 1979 Gentlemen’s Trot, a Grand Circuit race in Lexington, KY.
At the same time that he was learning to race and win as a harness racer, he and Beverly were also learning how to raise and breed champion horses, and owned more than forty at one point. A trio of their horses, Majestic Charlie, Majestic Willie, and Majestic Andy, named after their sons, combined to win over $1,000,000 in purses.
He Always Ran, He Was Fast
Dr. Morrison becomes a little subdued when he mentions his son Willie, his second-oldest child, and for the next few moments, he weaves between recollections of Willie his son and Willie his horse. “He was fast!” he declares, and I assume he means the horse. “I used to coach him in baseball, of course,” he remembers, and I am embarrassed that I assumed incorrectly. “I could send him. He could steal a base.” Dr. Morrison continues telling stories of Willie’s days as a young boy, running all over Essex Junction with his friends. “He always ran,” he says. “He was fast.”
Willie Knapp Morrison ’82 was one of Cardigan’s first legacies—his older brother Charlie ’76 was the first. Willie passed away after a brief illness in 1980, just a few weeks after completing his seventh-grade year at Cardigan. Six years later, the School dedicated the William Knapp Morrison Infirmary, a gift of Dr. and Mrs. Morrison. Additionally, every May at Commencement, The William Knapp Morrison Award is given to the senior who best exemplifies Willie’s spirit.
The Last Great Self-Made Man
As lunch plates are cleared, Ms. Solberg inquires about Dr. Morrison’s relationship with Hap Hinman, which they maintained until Mr. Hinman’s death in 1964. Dr. Morrison’s respect for his mentor is palpable. “He was one of the last great self-made men,” he explains. “I was very fortunate to have a relationship with him that was not superficial.”
Back in the pickup, Dr. Morrison treats us to a brief tour of his neighborhood, including the field hospital for Fort Ethan Allen, which he bought in the mid-1960s and developed into Green Mountain Nursing and Rehabilitation. Though he later sold the nursing home, his medical office is still on an adjoining property today.
I feel that years ago being asked to serve on the board of trustees with these distinguished gentlemen was a high point of my life. I feel that I’ve been able to continue Hap’s work in trying to help young boys succeed.Richard D. Morrison, M.D.
As the afternoon winds down, we return to Dr. Morrison’s house, and he invites us in. He’s lived here for decades, and there are artifacts and interesting adornments throughout. He clearly enjoys walking us through the house, meticulously explaining each piece, and sharing his memories of how he acquired them.
Downstairs, the walls are covered with model trains on display, and I immediately notice the Cardigan Mountain Express on the track. Dr. Morrison settles in behind the control panel, and the Express comes to life. I attempt to take a photo of the train as it rolls past him, though I have difficulty finding the right angle. After twenty minutes, we all seem mesmerized by the soothing, hypnotic cadence of the train on the track, and we decide it’s time to go.
As we drive home, I am struck by the breadth and depth of Dr. Morrison’s interests, accomplishments, and half-century of service to our School. Mr. Hinman was not one of the last great self-made men; he would be proud to know the self-made man his protégé, Dickie Morrison, became—a local boy to whom Hap had given an opportunity to live the Cardigan Way, and who seized it by trying new things, shifting the gears, and always smiling while he made it.
And I haven’t even told you about his penchant for real estate, his insurance business, or getting a tryout to pitch for the Red Sox.