Memorial celebration for Morrie Turner confirms its possibility
People described him as caring, pioneering, classy, talented, handsome and numerous other extraordinary and astounding adjectives. Each and all of them overwhelmingly deserved. These words came from the lips of his family, longtime friends, a congresswoman, renowned journalists, colleagues, publishers, television producers. The list could go on. Their stories, and especially for me the farewell note from his longtime letterer Sid Shaffer (read by Sid’s son, Mr. Shaffer is hospitalized due to his own health issues) resonated with the heartfelt loss of a man, person, father and friend sincerely revered, adored, honored, admired and loved. It was an utter joy, privilege and blessing to have called Morris N. Turner – Morrie Turner as he’s known professionally – my friend. And seated at a table inside the standing-room-only packed Grand Ballroom of the Claremont Hotel and Spa Resort in Berkeley, Calif., I came to realize how truly legendary my friend’s life was and is.
An artist since childhood, Morrie had enjoyed an esteemed career drawing a weekly comic strip of child characters from various racial and ethnic backgrounds demonstrating to the world how we could all – as Rodney King had asked – get along. And the beauty and heart of my longtime dear, friend was his belief - until his dying day – that world peace can be achieved. That, yes, Rodney: we can all get along. And he worked tirelessly toward that end, until his end. Yet what struck next while listening to the publisher of his first book speak (that is, in addition to realizing I needed to record something to post to Morrie’s Facebook Page) was this intense realization of sharing a world dream with an icon. Following close on the ends of this awakening came validation: that my belief, my dream, no matter how idealistic, had merits in the mind and heart of at least one great man. Yet people like Malcolm Whyte, the publisher of that first book, Jerri Lange and Belva Davis, two extraordinary journalists, and a host of others said they too had shared Morrie's dream. That, it seems, is what touched them most about him, too.
Knowing you have the same dream as people considered legends and icons goes a long way in removing the angst brought on by notions (drummed into us through various channels) that believing in such amounts to infantile or naïve notions about life. No. Wishing and hoping for – or striving toward world peace – is not some unrealistic idealistic goal hatched merely along political lines and names: liberal, tree-hugging, flower-children. In truth the possibility must exist; else, reality means utter despair. To accept a premise of existing solely in a world of constant struggle and acrimony – born out of race/ethnic hatred, violence, greed, divisiveness – merely to die is to resign oneself to a life of basic misery with little to nothing assured save a pine box six feet under, ashes tossed at sea or somewhere else, or prone on some university lab table.
So I sat there learning more about my friend by listening to the tales of this legendary man – a man I’d met shortly after moving here through a mutual friend (with whom we both lost contact) and had interviewed and written about while a reporter with The Oakland Tribune. A man whose favorite mantra was “Keep the faith.” And a man who literally walked his talk. Sunday, Feb. 9, I came to realize exactly what he meant. Because, bottom line, we all are at the core mere bone, flesh, blood, brains, organs, emotions, mind, abilities and capabilities of every kind and every level. Each and all human beings, needing and wanting basically the same things. And we all are going to die. Some day. In some way.
Over the years, Morrie attended various speaking engagements at my request, and he always sent me invites to his many book appearances, tributes, birthday parties, civic honors, award ceremonies. Sometimes he'd call to ask my opinions on book projects; other times we'd just met for dinner or coffee to chat and catch up. Morrie was, as anyone who knew him can attest, a very fun person. Innumerable great one-liners, which is probably what made him so good at drawing weekly comics. And he loved peach cobbler, for which we made intermittent trips to get or to have delivered to him, courtesy always of the MY Homestyle Café in Vallejo, Calif. But time was passing quickly. Suddenly I had been in the Bay Area 30 years, and Morrie no longer lived alone in the Berkeley house his parents had owned. Relocated to the West Sacramento home of his companion Karol Trachtenberg who, up until the end assisted him with his routine care and weekly dialysis sessions, Morrie was starting to show the signs of his age.
Modeling his Wee Pals friends after Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip – replete with General Lee, the equivalent to Charlie Brown’s Snoopy – Morrie’s Nipper, Jerry, Rocky, Oliver, Trinh, Connie, Pablo, Wellington, Ralph, George, Sybil and Mikki lived in a neighborhood where people of various ethnic and racial groups – with at times different and opposing viewpoints – got along: they worked, played, went to school, enjoyed life together. In his letter read by his son, Sid Shaffer said being friends with Morrie was “like having one of the Wee Pals characters step out of the cartoon…” But, he added, “Times have changed… [and] with them came a newer and better way of looking at the world," brought on in large part by the power of children and the rainbow. "You’ve shown the world what we can be. Should be. And must be," Mr. Shaffer wrote, then he thanked his best friend and colleague.
Somewhere along Claremont Avenue en route to the event, blocks short of its namesake hotel, I burst into tears, crying all the rest of the way to the hotel and for minutes after parking. Only time constraints forced me out of the car and into that beautiful white palace on the hill to say a final goodbye to my friend. Standing-room only, I lucked into a spot permitting an unobstructed view of the stage; this allowed me to record portions (at least one: the story by publisher Malcolm Whyte, the publisher of his first book, The Black and White Coloring Book) without hassle. Tears came during Mr. Shaffer’s letter and again during Mr. Whyte’s tale; yet, being there, celebrating Morrie’s life, lifted my spirits. I became happy. Sensed a renewed faith in life. When Morrie said “keep the faith,” I realized, he referred less to any religion and more to just a basic outlook on life: living with a sense of hope in something better. Mr. Whyte called it living in a “state of wonderment.” Indeed, he said. “Morrie operated in a perpetual state of wonderment. Wonder was his engine.” Because of that, for Morrie, the “world around him was a wondrous celebration,” Mr. Whyte read from tbe memorial piece he had written for the National Cartoonists Society newsletter. “And he shared that with us through his work, art and whole being so we may bask in the wondrous riches of life, too.” Noting Morrie’s signature departure words: “keep the faith,” Mr. Whyte concluded: “I believe wonder was part of his faith. It’s the faith, indeed, worth keeping.”
Morrie and my friendship spanned more than 30 years; in that time, we got to know a great deal about each other. Several years ago, launching his Facebook page provided the additional joy of introducing some of the newest technology to someone whose work in mass media had spanned decades and was clearly coming to an end. Mr. Shaffer’s granddaughter realized it; she wrote about it.
Morrie was thrilled by the FB messages and comments, pictures shared and stories told. Fans from all over the world related tales of how they met, or the advice he gave them, or their parents’ friendship with him and his wife.... Morrie remained fascinated by it all. To the very end: his mind, still sharp and crisp, recalling specific details and aspects of people’s marriages and friends’ lives or children. Just as the fun began to pick up (Morrie wanted some “computer lessons” so he could use Facebook himself), it became clear Morrie was starting to slow down. We never did get to the computer lessons – although he did get to use my laptop during one visit to see his Facebook page, read some comments and respond directly. Usually I just called him by telephone, read the comments and messages (printed out screen shots and mailed them) and he would dictate answers for posting. This particular visit, which included a delivery of the peach cobbler, we sat together, and he saw his Facebook page for the first and last time. We also never got to go for another round of peach cobbler.
Thursday evening, Jan. 23, when I called to discuss his Facebook page, Morrie - for the first time since I'd known him - sounded fatigued. His energy seemed sapped; the dialysis and blood pressure issues were taking their toll, and he had been scheduled for a foot amputation surgery. Although glad to hear from his fans, the typical enthusiasm-laced anticipation preceding the reading of each new message seemed forced; Morrie was struggling. He quickly grew tired, so we cut the session short. Nevertheless, he wanted me to forward him the picture someone had sent to him (a fan, now a grown man, had saved a picture Morrie drew of him as a baseball player in grade school) along with the message requesting an interview for a documentary on West Oakland. He responded to that email, saying he planned to do the interview. I told him I’d call him back in a day or two after he got some rest. Friday afternoon, he went into the hospital; by Saturday evening, he was gone.
Morrie’s spirit will live forever. It’ll live forever in Wee Pals archives, old newspapers, magazines and on the Internet; in classrooms, homes and libraries, museums throughout the country and world. Most important for me, Morrie’s spirit remains an inspiration – someone who renewed my optimism for the world. A legendary spirit that sparked a new, brighter way of viewing the world – who made the world better in significant and vital ways. And he was my friend - a friend whose values were shared and cherished by many. And who lived those values until his very last breath.
We should all be so fortunate to live a life as full as his, and one that ends with such a peaceful, graceful and glorious note. “Keep the faith.”