Alexander Cecil Morris
LCDR Alexander Cecil Morris's 47-year, five month career spanned the end of sail, the use of both coal and oil, and the beginning of the nuclear age. He served under Presidents Theodore Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower, a full quarter of the nation's history.
He was born George Morris on January 21, 1889 in Manhattan's East Village, and baptized Alexander George Morris February 17th at the nearby Church of the Immaculate Conception. His parents died of consumption (tuberculosis), leaving him, along with three older siblings, an orphan at three. To keep them together, the four children were placed in an orphan asylum behind St. Patrick's Cathedral at 52nd Street. As the older children reached seventeen and left the orphanage to earn their way, they stayed in contact. A couple of relatives came by, but just once, he recalled.
Young Al had to overcome many obstacles to survive and succeed. He was always thin and hungry, never having enough to eat. As he was very conscious of his family's susceptibility to the tuberculosis that killed his parents, he tried hard to stay healthy. Al started exercising to develop his muscles, and became tough as nails.
When Al was nine or ten, his asylum was unexpectedly shut. The Cathedral's history brochure says that in the late 1890s, a church building was added behind St. Patrick's Cathedral. Perhaps not knowing what to do with the children, the authorities sent the boys to the Catholic Reform School. The boys were mingled with the regular inmates. Instead of being treated as victims of unfortunate circumstances, the reformatory treated them with great severity, like the wayward boys imprisoned for vicious robberies, assaults and pick-pocketing.
Fortunately, the boys were retrieved after a time and placed in a truly fine orphan asylum, probably the Catholic "St. Vincent's School for Boys" located in lower Manhattan around East 21st Street. Here, the hours were spent pleasantly. They were happy years for the growing young man. St. Vincent's treated them well, schooled them, taught them social manners, provided uniformed sports teams and, most important to him, had music lessons and a band.
Young Al Morris first studied music at St. Vincent's. He started with the harmonica and soon excelled. The brothers then taught him to play the clarinet with great technique. He joined the asylum band and also began to study the violin. The asylum's band marched in parades, entertained and competed with other bands. A Sister Alice, recognizing his strong interest and talent in music, suggested changing from George to Cecil, after St. Cecilia, the Church's Patron Saint of music. Al adopted Cecil as his middle name when confirmed. From then on, his name was Alexander Cecil Morris.
Occasionally, the band accompanied New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt to ceremonies. One was the ceremony at which the hyphen was made part of Wilkes-Barrie, Pennsylvania's name. When Roosevelt was elected President in 1904, he invited the orphans' band to march in his inaugural parade. With few if any exceptions, Al marched in all inaugural parades from Roosevelt's in 1905 through Eisenhower's in 1953.
When Al had to leave the orphanage at seventeen to make his way in life, the sisters gave him the clarinet and violin he had been playing. For the next two years, he worked a variety of jobs, such as butcher, and a printer like his Dad. However, he continued to want to learn music. Eventually, a printer friend, Tom O'Connor, told him he could join the Navy for "three squares and a hammock," with time ashore to study music. Mr. O'Connor, no doubt, never dreamed this orphan boy would someday receive letters of congratulation from high government officials.
Al enlisted in the Navy on November 17, 1907, at the age of eighteen. He attended boot camp in Newport, Rhode Island, finishing in April 1908. The first entry in his personnel jacket, was the training ship USS Constellation, now berthed in Baltimore Harbor. She was the Navy's last fully sail-powered warship. Later, she spent 21 years, 1872-93, at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. The Navy next ordered Constellation to Newport, Rhode Island, no doubt to give Boots a taste of the "oulde Nyvee."
Rather than remaining ashore as he expected, Apprentice Seaman Morris was assigned to the battleship USS New Hampshire, then nearing commissioning in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Learning that Seaman Morris played the clarinet and violin, and wanted to be in the band, the ship's bandleader, C. G. Starke, informed him the ship's bugler was being transferred. "Do you know how to play a bugle Morris?" "No sir." replied the young sailor. "Can you learn how to play one?" he asked. "Yes sir." came the reply. "Well good. You have three months to prepare yourself as the new ship's bugler." If he qualified, he would become a musician striker.
Bugles were the main means of communicating events aboard ship in that day. To join the ship's band meant he had to learn 132 bugle calls. Young Morris still considered this wonderful news. He would escape the deck force, and wear a musician's badge on a marine's uniform. Al studied under Bandleader Starke, who he described as an excellent leader and outstanding cornet player.
In early 1909, the USS New Hampshire received orders to join the Great White Fleet off Bermuda for the final days of their round-the-world cruise begun in mid 1907. The Fleet had started the historic 46,000 mile trip from Hampton Roads, Virginia, down the east coast of the U. S. and South America, then back up the west side. The Panama Canal was not yet open. They stayed two months in San Francisco harbor, with some ships visiting Seattle. On July 7, 1908, they stood out of the Golden Gate bound for Hawaii. Later stops included New Zealand, Australia, Manila, Yokohama, Ceylon, Suez, various Mediterranean ports, Bermuda and finally home to Virginia. They were celebrated and entertained everywhere.
On February 17, 1909, Rear Admiral Arnold's squadron, consisting of battleships Maine (flagship), New Hampshire, Mississippi, Idaho, and the cruiser Salem, joined Rear Admiral Sperry's Great White Fleet. Five days later, February 22, 1909 the Fleet arrived at Hampton Roads, Virginia. The New Hampshire entered Hampton Roads as part of the Great White Fleet, passing in review as President Theodore Roosevelt stood on the brow of the Presidential Yacht, Mayflower.
As each ship-of-the-line passed the President, she fired a 21-gun salute and proceeded to an assigned anchorage. As a finale, all the ships fired a second 21-gun salute in unison as the last ship dropped anchor. Roosevelt later wrote that this was his proudest moment as President.
Musician Morris went in USS New Hampshire to Northern Europe and the Baltic Sea. He saw the opera Don Juan in Sweden and the German Kaiser in Hamburg, Germany. He rode in a Russian troika in St. Petersburg, toured royal palaces and sights in Denmark and England, and supped on goat (delicious) in France. Al traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba about 1910 in New Hampshire, Newark, Dubuque and others to help start that new base. The crews got no liberty for three months. During the next three decades, he cruised to a number of other Caribbean nations while playing or leading Navy bands.
Years of hard application and willpower brought success to him and enjoyment for others. In the early days on board ship, he practiced in the ship's double bottom or coal bunker. There, he could play as he pleased, undisturbed and seldom disturbing others- one exception being an admiral who could take no more of his playing scales. The bands often entertained the crew with concerts and minstrel shows.
After his first enlistment ended in 1911, Al left the Navy for three months to study clarinet at the New York's City's National Conservatory of Music on West 79th Street. A part of his dream and prayer had come true. While at the Conservatory, Mr. Morris became friends with Leo Schultz, first cellist with the New York Philharmonic. Following his advice, Mr. Morris switched from majoring in clarinet to violin. It became his first love. He also became a member of the Brooklyn Navy Yard band, remaining there for the next six years.
The band was assigned to the fleet flagship, the battleship Pennsylvania, from 1917 to 1920. During World War One, Pennsylvania never fired a shot in anger. After a second tour of three years at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as bandleader, he served as bandleader in the cruiser Rochester during the early 1920s.
During these early years of his naval service, assignments were either aboard a ship homeported in Brooklyn or to the Brooklyn Navy Yard's station band. The young sailor took advantage of this opportunity and continued his professional musical education for the next three years after his second enlistment. He studied violin with Leopold Sichlenberg, then considered the greatest of violin teachers, music history under Henry T. Fink, orchestra under Leopold Schultz, and harmony under M. Haschek.
Al also devoted a great part of his spare time to practical work in counterpoint, arrangement, and transcription of orchestral and band music. As a result of his work and reputation in the musical world, he passed a rigorous examination by Arthur Pryor and Franko Baedman, and was admitted to the prestigious American Bandmasters Association. Because he was giving concerts around New York from about 1912, composers such as Irving Berlin would ask him to play their tunes. He said he always liked Irving.
He made Chief Petty Officer in 1918 while at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and was permanently appointed bandmaster on November 1, 1918 by Franklin Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy. One advantage he had was his articulateness in English at a time when many musicians were immigrants with limited English skills.
Al was one of the first bandleaders to broadcast "live" over radio. In 1920, the Yard's Admiral Plunkett ordered the band to go to the Edison Laboratories in East Orange, New Jersey. From their studio, the band broadcast to the pioneer users of crystal radio sets. He continued broadcasting Navy Band concerts until the mid 1950s.
The year 1923 marked a new phase for Chief Morris. After three years in charge of the Brooklyn Navy Yard band, he had been transferred to the cruiser Rochester. While in Panama, he contracted malaria and so was transferred to Norfolk for recovery. There, he learned that a US Navy Band was to be chartered and formed in the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard in 1925. He applied, was selected to be Third Leader, and reported to the US Navy Band at the Navy Yard, Washington DC in January 1924. A graduate of the Navy's School of Music in Newport, Al also helped start the Navy School of Music in Washington.
In the '20s and '30s Chief Morris directed the President's Naval band, frequently traveling with Presidents Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin Roosevelt. For example, he was aboard the presidential train when Harding died returning from a trip west, and he traveled with Hoover to the Caribbean in the battleship Arizona. Promotion to Second Leader followed in September 1931.
The Washington band conducted annual tours around the United States and into Canada. They traveled by bus for as long as three months. For example, 1929's tour lasted eight weeks, September 28th to November 24th, with 56 concerts in as many cities. This was in addition to many regional and local events such as the official dedication of Mount Rushmore. Later, when the opportunity to transfer to the Naval Academy Band was offered, one of the major attractions was to distance himself from the dreaded bus tours.
Al was proud of being the orchestra leader aboard the Presidential Yacht Mayflower from 1924 until she was detached from Presidential service three and a half years later. She was the same yacht Theodore Roosevelt used to greet the returning Great White Fleet some fifteen years before.
In 1938, Chief Morris was transferred to the U. S. Naval Academy Band as Second Leader, with the rank of Chief Warrant Officer. Eight years later, March 3, 1947, he was designated Leader. He succeeded LT Sima, who had become Leader about January 1933, on LT Peterman's retirement. The Leader was entitled to the pay and allowances of a Lieutenant, senior grade by 34 U. S. Code 1091-a. On March 10, 1947, Chief Musician Alberto Schifanellia was promoted to Second Leader with the rank of Warrant Officer. Morris was promoted in September 1953 to Lieutenant Commander, when there was a general advancement of Navy bandleaders. He was the only Naval officer wearing a gold lyre above his LT and LCDR stripes where the line officers wore stars.
Al notably improved the band's reputation and quality. The Academy and the Navy publicized his accomplishments and historical appeal, gaining favorable publicity. Through exposure at concerts, parades, sporting events, dances, broadcasts, articles and news releases, Al Morris was seen as an "orphan boy made good" and became one of the Academy's better known celebrities.
Al had great stage presence whether playing, leading or speaking. He liked asking Yard workers what they wanted to hear. OK, he'd say, listen for it at tomorrow's concert. When his sons became Midshipmen, the barbers, tailors and workmen remembered the favors and said to just let them know if they could provide an emergency haircut, etc.
The band's January, 1953 roster held 72 names. Most players had to double on an entirely different instrument, such as a brass and a woodwind. Players formed different groups, such as the marching band, dance combos and concert orchestra. Al liked playing popular tunes during bandstand concerts when midshipmen marched to class, as they did in those days. When in the 1950s playing the "Bunnyhop" resulted in the Midshipmen breaking ranks and dancing through the Yard instead of soberly marching along, he had to tone it down a bit.
LCDR Morris's permanent rate was Chief Musician. As an enlisted man, he had to reenlist in November of 1952 for the eleventh time. Unfortunately, after quickly spending his "shipping over" money, LT Morris had to pay it back- officers, it turned out, did not rate the stipend even if he did have to re-up.
Al only had an eighth grade education but was widely read, even reading Shakespeare during his first enlistment. His penmanship was beautiful, reflecting years of Palmer Method cursive writing drills popular at the turn of the century. He always encouraged bandsmen to go to college and tried to arrange assignments so they could continue their education. This policy was unusual during the '40s and 50s.
The Naval Academy publication "Log Splinter" of December 5, 1952 noted, "The band lines up at the far end of Worden Field for its ritual march downfield to the other end. On the near side of the first rank, one man, who stands out above all the rest, is Lieutenant Alexander C. Morris, the band's leader. Each time Mr. Morris parades down the field, his shoulders are squared and his eyes are set- a model for all to follow."
When the Navy's Bureau of Personnel, BUPERS, was converting personnel records in the early '50s, they started with the most recent and ended with the earliest. LCDR Morris's leather-bound personnel jacket showed he had the most continuous service of anyone in any of the armed forces, and by several years. It listed his first station as the USS Constellation. BUPERS presented the pouch to LCDR Morris as a memento.
The contribution to the Naval Academy that he was most proud of materialized about 1947 during a meeting with Professor Gill, the Chapel organist and Academy choir director. Responding to Al's comment that he would love to do a production of the Handel's "Messiah", Professor Gill responded that he knew the musical director at Hood College for women, and that they had a wonderful choir. A great deal of hard work was put into organizing, planning, practicing and gaining official permission to incorporate the performance into the Brigade's activities. It was worth it because the first year's performances were incredible successes. And so they continue to this day.
Within a few years, the production was highly revered, and singing leads were volunteering their services from New York's Metropolitan Opera. Al Morris would always assume the role as the orchestra's "first violinist" and Concertmaster, with great respect and concern that his performance had to be perfect. Each August, much to the chagrin of family and neighbors, he would begin his practicing routine for the production. He practiced his scales for over a month before attempting any of the score. His family was going nuts hearing the scales again and again, but to Al there was a labor of love in his fingertips that had to be honed.
LCDR Morris retired from the Navy on March 31, 1955 with 47 years and 5 months service. Only Fleet Admirals William D. Leah, Ernest J. King, and Chester W. Nimitz - always considered on active duty - exceeded his tenure. LCDR Morris was the last active member of the Great White Fleet. He had advanced from apprentice seaman, through Musician 2nd Class, Musician 1st Class, Bandmaster (temporary), Bandmaster (permanent), Warrant Officer, and Lieutenant, to Lieutenant Commander.
He wrote Superintendent Vice Admiral J. F. Boone, who he served under in Mayflower, "I was thrilled with the manner my Naval service terminated. There were numerous newspaper articles printed in the press. Newsreels were also taken. Through the Superintendent of the Naval Academy (then Rear Admiral W. F. Boone), I was the reviewing officer at the parade and stood on the small square stone on which so many VIPs and royalty stand when the Midshipmen pass in review. I can never repay Admiral Boone for the many kindnesses bestowed on me. Even the Brigade of Midshipmen rendered three cheers for Lieutenant Commander Morris. It now seems to me a big dream, but I loved it, don't you think I didn't."
Vice Admiral J. L. Holloway, Jr., Chief of Naval Personnel, wrote him "On the occasion of your retirement, I wish to convey both my official and personal appreciation for the high order of service you have devoted to the Navy for almost half a century. From our records, it would appear that you have the longest continuous active duty of any enlisted man now in the service. For over 47 years, you have maintained an exemplary record unblemished and unmarred by adverse entry. Your interest and enthusiasm down through the years have been an inspiration to your juniors and seniors alike. From my personal observation while Superintendent of the Naval Academy, as well as from my review of your record, I know that your military bearing, devotion to duty, and dynamic leadership have, for many years, set the highest standards for emulation by the midshipmen."
Senate Resolution No. 42, from the State of Maryland on March 23, 1955, congratulated and commended LCDR Morris for his services to the state and the Navy.
The cover page to A.C. Morris' 1955 composition "Good Luck and Goodbye."
The dedication reads " This song is respectfully dedicated to each and every graduating class of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis.
LCDR Morris lived out his retirement years in Annapolis. He died March 3, 1962, at the Naval Academy Hospital. He is buried alongside his wife Rose in Arlington National Cemetery. His three sons, son-in-law and a grandson all became Naval Academy Midshipmen.
(Thanks to sons Alex and Charles Morris for the wonderful story.)