Richard Neely Morrison was drafted at the height of the Vietnam War and became a pilot for Navy. His long record of public service earned him induction last month into the Arizona Veterans Hall of Fame. (David Minton/GSN Staff Photographer)

Richard Neely Morrison remembered receiving his conscription letter in 1968, during the height of the Vietnam War.

As he prepares to mark Veterans Day on Friday, the Gilbert man has a special reason to celebrate: He was inducted last month into the Arizona Veterans Hall of Fame.

From August 1964 to February 1973, 1.9 million men were called to arms to Southeast Asia – 296,406 of them in 1968, according to the Selective Service System.

“I had been drafted and my father had his college experience interrupted by World War II,” Morrison recalled. “It was another 40 years before he got back to school and finish his bachelor’s degree.”

Determined not to have that happen to him, Morrison found a program that allowed him to finish his studies. He graduated with honors and the first in his class in 1970 from Northern Arizona University with a business degree.

He then reported for active duty to Pensacola, Florida. to train as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot.

“I was originally told that I should expect to go to Vietnam in April 1972,” Morrison said. “But the orders were changed.”

He and seven other pilots based at Miramar, San Diego instead were sent to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, which became an infamous detention center in 2002 for terrorists.

The squadron of fighter pilots was tasked with guarding the base and protecting the U-2 spy planes flying over Cuba to take pictures of possible missile sites.

“It was 10 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis but our government didn’t trust Russia much,” Morrison said. “The (Russian) MiGs would try to shoot down the U-2s and if that happened we were there to shoot down the MiGs.

“We didn’t have an actual moment of air combat while I was there. I was there for 18 months and it was relatively peaceful.”

After Cuba, he met his wife, Elaine, on a blind date while on leave and they were married in 1973. The couple has two adult daughters, Julie and Ellen and two grandchildren, 4 and 8.

Morrison’s next assignment took him to Rice University in Houston, Texas, where he taught in the NROTC program there.

“I requested it because I was anxious to resume my education,” Morrison said. “I was interested in grad work and reasoned if I got on a college campus, I might have the opportunity to do some graduate work on free time and it turned out not only possible but what happened.”

He also became a casualty assistance calls officer.

“That is kind of a fancy title for the function of going to tell parents that their sons or daughters were now dead,” Morrison said. “That always was a tough duty. My heart was always in my throat when I ranged the doorbell.

“Because the government would not send a message like that by mail or telephone, they first learned about death of their child from me.”

At night Morrison studied law at University of Houston and even though he was discharged in 1976, he stayed and earned a juris doctorate in 1977 before returning home to Arizona.

Morrison said three reasons prompted his exit from a career in the Navy.

“First, my eyes were deteriorating,” he said. “In the Navy at the time once your eyes got worse than 20/30 and even if you’re wearing glasses to get 20/20, you’re not permitted to fly an aircraft off an aircraft carrier anymore and I knew I would not have a successful career as a Navy pilot if I can’t fly off an aircraft.

“I also had a wide academic interest and wanted more education. And my parents were older and my father and his business partner were showing signs of slowing down and I though I would be needed back at home in connection with the family farm.”

The family farm was created by Morrison’s grandparents, Howard and Leatha Morrison, who trekked 1,000 miles west from Oklahoma in the early 1920s and ended up as dirt farmers in Gilbert, according to the family’s online history.

His parents, Marvin and June, formed a partnership with his uncle Kenneth and his wife and they turned the family’s small land holdings into one of the East Valley’s biggest farming operations, which included several square miles of cropland and was one of the world’s largest dairy farms.

It also was one of Arizona’s largest ranching businesses with cattle grazing on over 400 square miles of state and leased land stretching from Flagstaff to the Verde River.

“My job in high school was to feed 5,000 steers every morning before school,” said Morrison, who attended Gilbert High School, now serving as Gilbert Public Schools’ administration building.

After he returned home, the newly minted lawyer spent the next 40 years, 25 years fulltime, practicing law – focusing on water law, environmental law and issues facing special districts and agriculture.

“The next thing that happened to me along the way I because persuaded to answer a call to the ministry,” he said. “As a young man I could not ignore it any longer. I went to seminary and practiced law.”

Morrison received a master’s degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary and was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church in 2003. He served as rector of Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Flagstaff, interim rector at St. Matthew’s in Chandler and as an assisting priest at Church of the Epiphany in Tempe.

“The last 15 years before I actually did retire, I worked primary as a priest,” said Morrison, who served a total of 21 years as an Episcopal clergyman.

He also served on a dozen or so civic boards and commissions such as Arizona Town Hall, Desert Botanical Gardens, Claremont School of Theology and Mesa Chamber of Commerce.

He became the first Gilbert resident to be president of the PHX East Valley Partnership in 1992. He also founded NAU’s Institute for Public and Professional Ethics in Leadership and co-founded the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, which provides objective research on public policy issues.

He’s administered a private charitable foundation and managed several family-owned agricultural enterprises.

Morrison, who survived bouts with cancer, credits his non-stop work ethics to his childhood on a farm and to his dad.

“I’ve been active my whole entire life,” he said. “My dad was on 35 boards and commissions while I was in high school. So he set an example for me and the whole family, which I’ve not been able to match.”

Morrison’ s accomplishments haven’t gone unnoticed.

He’s received a number of recognitions, including ASU’s Distinguished Achievement Award, University of Houston School of Law’s Order of the Barons, the Dwight Patterson Lifetime Achievement Award. 

At 75, Morrison is still active, teaching at ASU Polytechnic campus and during the pandemic he started working on a doctorate degree in organizational leadership at University of Arizona’s distance learning program.

“I ended up suspending that early this year to focus on other work in the community and I’m thinking about getting back to it,” he said. “It’s good for the brain to stay learning academically.”

When he’s not busy at meetings or focusing on work, he regularly goes to the gym and for social activities, he attends a lot of dinners.

“I do some things physical for my health and I try to but I don’t get enough sleep,” he said.

As for time set aside to have fun, he responded, “I like the idea of having fun (but) I actually don’t have much of it.”

One regret Morrison has is not traveling more than he has.

“So many people seem to live and travel in their older years,” he said. “I wish I’ve been able to travel a little bit more extensively than I have. But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do it now. Travel is quite hard for me with a bad back and for health reasons.

“My traveling days are over. I‘ve seen probably been to 15 countries and got experience along the way.”