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Of NORMAN MORRISON Thirty years ago a Baltimore Quaker set himself on fire to protest the war in Vietnam. Did it make a difference?


July 30, 1995|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Writer

"Naturally my life and the lives of our children were severely impacted by the loss of Norman and the nature of his sacrifice," she writes. "A great weight came down upon us, creating a Before and After in our lives. Over the ensuing years we have suffered greatly, and still suffer to this day."


Here is how family and friends remember Norman Morrison, the man:

He rode a second-hand bike and liked to wear a beret.

He was fond of carpentry and gardening and ice hockey -- a sport which he played hard; once in a casual, pickup game he came close to cracking his opponent's rib.

He liked to clunk around the house in the morning wearing only boxer shorts and big, black shoes.

He delighted in frugality -- bought his suits for $2 and $3 at rummage sales -- and was fascinated by the stock market, although he never bought a stock in his life.

He liked to dance -- had a natural sense of rhythm -- but had some misgivings about it. He could even wiggle his ears to a beat. He liked to hold his 5-year-old daughter, Tina, and swing her round and round to the music of Scottish reels.

The son of an Erie, Pa., dentist who died when Norman was 13, he was strict with his own son, Ben -- just as his father had been with him.

He earned degrees from the College of Wooster and Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh. He planned to enter the Presbyterian ministry but instead became a Quaker in 1959 and worked professionally in the Society of Friends. His salaried position as executive secretary at the Stony Run Friends Meeting in Baltimore included attending committee meetings, visiting homes and ministering to its 420 members.

He could be very distracted and often seemed to have his mind focused on something other than the task at hand. At the same time, he took pleasure in finishing a job in half the time it might normally require.

He was frustrated by his inability to communicate as a public speaker and was not always at ease socially.

Each year he withheld $5 from his income tax as a "token protest" against the federal government's military budget.

He was an introspective person, sometimes eccentric and indirect in manner and overly critical of himself. An achiever -- once an Eagle Scout -- he was intense and idealistic about life, religion, politics and society. Some found his intensity unnerving.


"A person who does what he did is not going to be like everybody else."

John Roemer, a Quaker who belonged to the Stony Run Friends Meeting, is speaking, trying to describe his close friend Norman Morrison. Thirty years ago both men were deeply involved in the civil rights and peace movements.

"He was a very intense person. He certainly had a sense of humor, but Norman lived and thought about life at a moral and religious level that most of us don't," says Mr. Roemer, now a librarian and teacher at Park School. "The pain of other people affected him more deeply than it did most people. . . . And that means that the universe hurts you more than it hurts other people.

"Most of the time if I were to read in the paper about somebody doing this I would say, 'Oh, boy, there's some history of derangement here. I bet all his friends knew he was a nut, and they're not talking about it.' I just don't see that here.

"Norman's act cannot be seen primarily as a public protest. He died for his beliefs. . . . What guided him was a personal moral imperative that said, 'It must stop. I cannot any longer be in complicity. I must do whatever act is necessary to say to the universe: No, no, no.' "

Sam Legg, another member of the Stony Run Meeting, remembers the growing frustration he saw in his friend:

"Norman had been praying and seeking and trying to find out what was God's will for him -- and he was lost and he was frustrated. He'd been writing letters to editors, to congressmen, to the president and the Pentagon; he'd participated in demonstrations and protests. He felt he had done everything that he as an individual could do to try to convince people that what we were doing in Vietnam was wrong. And he felt he was having no impact.

"I think he felt some dramatic gesture must take place to call to the attention of the American people the folly of what were doing. . . . I don't believe for a minute that he was leaving the world because he didn't want to be a part of it. I think he very much wanted to be a part of it -- a constructive, positive part of it -- but he felt he had tried that and it hadn't worked. And now he had to do something else."


So much has happened to the Morrison family -- a lifetime, really, has passed by -- since Norman ended his life by fire:

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