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Tuesday, June 27, 2006 | I spent most of the Father’s Day week reading my father’s diaries. This will go on for a while. The Rev. Samuel Lewis Morgan, who died in North Carolina in 1972 at the age of 100, ranks up there with Samuel Pepys as a poor man’s observer and commentator on the small things that make life big.
I don’t know yet which was more prolific. Father’s diaries, written once or twice a week for more than 60 years, appear to surpass a million lively words in length. No one saw his diaries before his death. He willed them to me as the other writer in the family, with a shy but fraternal note, hoping they could serve some purpose.
The originals, in tightly formed ink script, are in the collection of the Southern Historical Society at the University of North Carolina. Librarians there admire his writing enough to have provided me hard-bound photographic copies, which now occupy half of a bookcase shelf.
The diaries span his more than 60 years as a small town pastor across North Carolina. They include edgy appraisals of San Diego, en route to which he had his first airplane ride. I took him to see a Scripps oceanographer and we walked home along the beach.
“Son, there are shells along our Atlantic coast,” he said. “Why are there no shells on your coast?”
And, at Lindbergh Field as he was returning to Carolina: “Son, what is the purpose of this city?”
Everything you might imagine is in his diaries, from his outrage over known adulterers in his congregations to his hopes for President Woodrow Wilson’s earnest, sadly naive role as a world peacemaker; and from his own family tiffs to the continued oppression of Southern blacks.
He came from a stony mountainside farm in western Virginia determined “to be somebody” while serving his God. Eight studious years later, in 1909, he pastored his first congregation. His renown across the South came finally not as much from his sermons as from his eloquent and dogged letters and essays published in Southern newspapers and periodicals. He completed an unpublished book called “Why Fear Death?” Late in life, he emerged as a respected, tough-skinned reformer, notable for his early and courageous support of the equal rights movement.
He was an orator in the pulpit but a warm and caring pastor, and yet it appears that the highest annual salary he received was about $1,500. During the Depression of the 1930s, intending to see four of us through college, he trained himself for a second role as a newspaper correspondent. That brought in a dime an inch for every story published in the Raleigh News and Observer, Richmond Times-Dispatch, and Atlanta Journal.
He grew so widely published that, when he was in his 80s, a reader complained in a letter to the Raleigh News and Observer: “Can no one silence this old man?” The newspaper editor, in delight, had mailed the letter to Father, who was visiting our family in San Diego. As he read it, we had the pleasure of watching his kindly and by then deeply wrinkled face flush, and his body tremble with laughter.
Neil Morgan is a member of the board of directors and senior editor of voiceofsandiego.org. Send a letter to the editor.