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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

Still, he also says: "Perhaps I could have seen it myself and asked what was going on. My secretary might have told me. I think that's what happened."


When Anne Morrison received the first phone call at about 6 p.m. on that Tuesday evening in 1965, it was from a Newsweek reporter. "Do you know what happened in Washington?" he asked.

She didn't. The reporter stopped short when he realized she didn't yet know about Norman and Emily, telling her only that her husband and child were involved in some kind of protest.

The next call came immediately after; it was an official from the Pentagon who told her what had happened. "However, I was not told at that point that Norman was dead," Anne says. "I was assured, however, of Emily's safety and well-being."

George Webb and Harry Scott, two Quaker friends, accompanied Anne to the Fort Myer dispensary and, later, read her statement to the large group of reporters and photographers assembled there.

"Anne was very composed on the ride over," Mr. Scott recalls. "She was quite cool. At least outwardly."

At Fort Myer a nurse brought Emily to her mother. "She seemed calm and normal, not at all upset," Anne says. They also handed Anne a diaper bag that was found in the Cadillac. It contained a couple of bottles of milk, pacifiers and diapers.

Found in Norman's pockets at the time of his death were some scribbled notes referring to Buddhists and Vietnam and a month-old lecture notice on "The Ordeal of Peace in Two World Wars."

He was also carrying a wallet. It contained $10, a laundry ticket and a draft card.

The draft card was not burned.

Back in Baltimore, as word began to spread about Norman -- "Is it our Norman?" one member of the Stony Run Meeting plaintively asked another on the phone -- the Quaker community began to close ranks around Anne and her family.

"The overriding impulse of the Meeting was to take care of Anne and the children," recalls Eleanor Webb, a friend who helped take care of Tina and Ben on that first tumultuous night. "To organize food and to see that that kind of practical, loving care was just done."

Another close friend, Nancy Clark, remembers the scene at the house in Govans that night: "There were reporters all over the place, spotlights on the house, people calling constantly. What we mainly did was to protect her from that kind of publicity and set up a system where she would not have to answer the door or the phone."

Christina, just 5 then, has her own memories of the night her father died:

"I remember lots of people and lots of confusion suddenly appearing in our house. I didn't know why. In the midst of it all I vividly recall watching my mother stride out the door like a queen on a mission to save her country. I didn't know where she was going. I just huddled on the couch with my brother. We must have felt quite abandoned. I'm sure no one knew what to tell us.

"We were told of his death the next morning. I have no memory of that whatsoever, which tells you how shocked I was. Mom tells me that I said, 'Daddy has died, and now his love will spread,' which she found very wise and poetic.

"I think I was desperately trying to make sense of it, . . . to make it okay on some level so that my world would not completely fall apart. Unfortunately, I didn't know that the best thing I could do was express my feelings."

Two days after Norman's death his final letter to Anne arrived.

"It was an incredible shock to receive that letter," she says now. "It was, in a way, somewhat helpful to read. . . . On the surface of it, that Abraham-Isaac story goes against all sorts of rational reason. But I think [Norman] used it as a spiritual point. It's a faith parable. And it was mysterious.

"But who knows why he went? There are probably a hundred reasons that took Norman to Washington."

Other letters began pouring in to the tidy, brown-and-yellow shingled house after Norman's death. Some contained money for the Morrison family. Unlike the letters received recently by Robert McNamara in response to his book, most expressed sympathy and admiration.

A letter of condolence arrived from Nguyen Huu Tho on behalf of the South Vietnam National Front for Liberation and the South Vietnamese people:

"We express our admiration and gratitude towards the sublime self-immolation of Norman Morrison, his family for the cause of justice of our two nations and for peace of progressive mankind."

In Cambodia the Benedictine monks offered a Mass for the repose of Norman's soul.

And in North Vietnam, Norman Morrison was, and still is, regarded as a folk hero.

The Vietnamese, who accept self-immolation as part of the Buddhist tradition, named a street after him and issued in his honor a commemorative stamp. Poems and songs were written about him. One poem, written by a group of teachers from Nam Dinh City, begins:

One morning, the loudspeakers announced

Throughout my homeland, the news

That, from far-away U.S.

A holy fire was set

Lightening a corner of the sky.

Morrison! You heroic son

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