Willard A. Morris, state elections administrator

April 30, 1994|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Sun Staff Writer

Willard A. Morris, Maryland's first Election Board administrator and a colorful Montgomery County political figure of the old school, died yesterday at Howard County General Hospital of complications after cancer surgery. He was 81.

During the approximately 15 years that Mr. Morris oversaw the state's election machinery, he made his name synonymous with elections in the state, predicting voter turnouts, commenting on alleged irregularities and seeking to extend the control of the state board over local jurisdictions.

In his heyday in Annapolis, Mr. Morris was temperamental, cranky and unfailingly helpful to candidates, young reporters and anyone else seeking help in negotiating the election code or the stacks of dusty, invariably revealing campaign records maintained in his office.

"He was great at his job, and he knew the election laws," said Gene M. Raynor, the current Election Board chief and an old friend. "A lot of people called him a curmudgeon, but he was a softy inside."

Former Gov. Marvin Mandel, who appointed Mr. Morris to the post he held from 1970 until his retirement in 1984 at age 72, said the election boards of Baltimore and the 23 counties operated largely on their own until the state board was created and Mr. Morris took over.

"The idea was to put them all under one umbrella," said Mr. Mandel. "The boards all had their own ways of doing things, but he was able to pull it all together and make it work. The state owes him a debt of gratitude for the job he did."

Mr. Morris, a haberdasher, got his start in Montgomery County politics as a community activist, but soon joined forces with Col. E. Brooke Lee, the county political boss, for whom he provided various services, including fund raising.

He split with the Lee machine in 1962, but through the years his political activities earned him positions on the county's Democratic Central Committee, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and the county election staff.

At the behest of William S. James, then Senate president and later state treasurer, Gov. Mandel named Mr. Morris to run the new Election Board office in Annapolis, which he opened in 1970 with two secretaries as the staff. The office has since grown to 17.

Mr. Morris was the opposite of today's stereotypical Montgomery County politician, one who pursues civic virtue with grim, unrelieved doggedness. By contrast, the portly Mr. Morris, who once jokingly called himself a "bagman" for the Lee organization, wore loud jackets and an ill-fitting silver hairpiece prone to stiff winds and bad jokes.

He was born on Sept. 7, 1912, in Frankfort, Ind. He moved to Washington, D.C., in the early 1930s to work at the National Recovery Administration. Later he became display manager in the men's department of Hecht's DepartmentStore.

He married Hazel Hamm Heckman in 1936. He enlisted in the Navy during World War II and served through 1946 as an electronics technician in Hawaii.

On his return, he settled in Silver Spring, where he opened and operated a clothing store, Willard Morris Apparel for Men and Casuals for Women, from 1954 to 1974, the period during which he became active in county politics.

He moved to Annapolis in 1980 to be closer to his work, then moved to Virginia Beach, Va., after his retirement. He remained an ardent fan of the Washington Redskins football team, for whose games he had held season tickets since 1937.

He returned to Montgomery County in 1992 to live in a retirement community, then moved to Howard County last year to be closer to his children.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by four children: Henry T. Morris III and Mary Christine Morris of Columbia, and Sara F. Towslee and W. Michael Morris of Virginia Beach; and by six grandchildren, including John A. Morris, a political reporter for The Sun.

Mr. Morris, who was a longtime member of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Washington, requested no funeral or memorial services.

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