“All my life — in South Bend, in Newark, New Jersey, Washington DC, and all the places I’ve lived — I’ve always been talking to people about trying to do the right thing. I hope my whole life is about trying to do the right thing. Friends of mine have always said to me, ‘You preach it, Billy Morris!’ And then, ‘You preach it, Brother William!’ Sarah, my wife, tells people, ‘He’s always been a preacher.’”
So says William Morris, attorney, teacher, radio DJ, ebullient bringer of soul and warmth as he gads about town. Many people in Bloomington know him as Brother William.
From the very first day I met him, years ago, I was certain Brother William was a minister of some kind, a Baptist, perhaps, or even an Evangelical. Like the first time I met Victor Oladipo. Gotta be a basketball player, I thought.
I was right about Oladipo, at the time a star for the Indiana University Hoosiers and now a big man with the NBA’s Indiana Pacers. I was wrong about Brother William.
“No one has ever formally designated me a preacher,” he says. But that’s changing.
“Several years ago, I had a stroke,” he explains. “That woke me up. Sometimes life’s just moving along and then all of a sudden the trajectory jumps off. So, since then, there’s been a trajectory of me going deeper into my faith and allowing people to train me, show me, share with me ways in which I can be an effective leader in faith. So I’m in the process, in the Episcopal Church, of working toward ordination as a deacon. Maybe if I’d started 40 years ago, maybe I’d have become a priest.”
Words, buttery and florid, tumble from his lips. If he were paid by the word, Brother William would be a rich man. He talks about love and beauty the way other men talk about an exciting overtime win. If he’s not a preacher yet, I don’t know who is.
“I’m in the Thomas Merton chapter of my life now,” Morris says. “That brother was heavy.” Merton, for the uninitiated, was a Trappist monk, a Catholic scholar, a poet and social activist, a mystic, an anarchist, and a pacifist based in Louisville’s Gethsemani Abbey. A confidant of spiritual luminaries like the current Dalai Lama and Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, Merton died in 1968. He wrote some 70 books, many on the various religions of the world, and inspired quite a few young American men to consider religious vocations.
“Sometimes,” Morris says, “at night before I go to bed, I listen to a Thomas Merton CD, or Dr. King or Desmond Tutu. They talk about love and commitment and knowing yourself on the inside.”
Odd that, for William Morris is the most outgoing of personalities. Seemingly everybody knows Brother William and now he’s getting to know himself.
He’s got quite a story to study. “Okay,” he says. “This story is circuitous. When I was born, I was an orphan. My mother was white. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed, really nice woman, very talented artistically, very friendly. Whatever gifts I have in personality, I got from her.
“My father was black and a little bit Native American. They were in high school when I was conceived and born. They wanted to get married to keep me, and I think they were very much in love until the end of my mother’s life several years ago. But the miscegenation laws and race laws in 1957 when I was born were still in place in Indiana, so they could not get married here.”
Morris’s parents at the time of his birth lived in Terre Haute. He never saw them until much later in his life.
“My mother went to one of those homes for unmarried mothers and she had me and she got to hold me for 15 minutes. I still have the poem that she wrote after the 15 minutes. And then she had to give me up,” he says.
“When I was four days old, I was sent to a foster home. For my first year and a half, I was in Terre Haute in a foster home. I was with a foster mother who went on to have 125 foster children. I was her first one. She’s still alive. I still see her.
“Then I was adopted by a family in South Bend, the Morrises, from whom I got my name. We were in South Bend until I was 12 when we moved east to Newark, New Jersey. I moved from the shadow of the Golden Dome — we lived so close to Notre Dame — to the Sopranos, this Italian/Irish/Puerto Rican neighborhood.
“I was there until I was midway through undergrad.
“So, I was influenced deeply by the black South Bend neighborhood and then this neighborhood in the New York metropolitan area I grew up in until I was 20.”
Now, as a DJ, those disparate influences, among many others, play mightily in his choices of music as he spins platters (old-school term for an old-school DJ) for WFIU’s The Soul Kitchen, a dizzying mishmash of genres and styles every Friday afternoon from 3 to 5 (as a part of Just You & Me) and Saturday nights 10 to midnight.
As he entered adulthood, Morris would become awash in more influences. His adoptive father and grandfather had lived in near total segregation, in a thankfully long-gone, benighted America. “That’s all they lived, right?” Morris says. “A purely black experience. I don’t know that experience. I’ve never been in a purely black experience. My dad didn’t want that for me. I saw other parts of America.”
Even his education was a medley. He attended Lehigh University in eastern Pennsylvania, where he majored in journalism and minored in business. Then he earned a master’s degree in communications at all-black Howard University. “But really, that was more of a master’s in blackness. I met Muhammad Ali. I saw Thurgood Marshall and Ruby Dee. I saw all these serious black luminaries, academics and book writers, and people who have done things,” he says.
Then he decided to become an attorney and studied law at the University of North Carolina. “I loved living in Chapel Hill. It has a lot more diversity than we do here. My time in Chapel Hill was fruitful in terms of being a lawyer, in terms of my church life, in terms of music.
“I was editor of a newsletter called the North Carolina Blues Society. I went all over the state listening to old blues, new blues, all this music, constantly. Today, when you hear The Soul Kitchen, all I’m doing is, excuse the word, regurgitating all that I’ve heard, all the music inside of me.”
For his law school graduation in 1989, Morris’s adoptive father gave him a CD player and a bunch of CDs. “The Temptations, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles’ Abbey Road. Kind of a strange collection,” he says.
“And when I was a kid, in South Bend, I could hear WLS at night,” Morris says. “I could pick it up from Chicago. In the Top 40 back then, you could hear ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ by Percy Sledge and then hear Tommy James and the Shondells. Listening to the radio at that time reflects in the way I try to play music today.”
But there’d be a lot of life to be lived before today. Morris left Chapel Hill and began to practice law, specializing in civil rights cases and employment discrimination. Then, in the late ’90s, he decided he didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. He moved to Mexico, staying there five years, and Guatemala for another year, doing church work and teaching English to indigenous people.
Before that, though, he’d finally met his birth mother, in 1997. “At the time, she lived in Bloomington and she was in poor health,” he says. In 2005, Morris received news she was in bad shape. He came to Indiana to be at her side. “She was at death’s door. I told her, ‘I can’t leave you like this.’ So I ended up staying and taking care of her until she passed away. After a while, I decided to make Bloomington my home.”
But that relocation wasn’t as easy as he might have thought. “I didn’t know anybody. I don’t go into bars. I’m not a party hopper. I had to take a job at Marsh, in the deli, so I could talk to people. I got involved with Big Brothers and a bunch of other organizations to get to meet people and do things,” he says.
Eventually, he found work teaching English to international students at IU. At the same time, he started working on another graduate degree, this time Teaching English as a Second Language. It was that work that led him to become a DJ.
“I would take my international students on tours of downtown, the justice building, city hall, the B-Line. I’d take them to coffee shops and try to introduce them to a little bit of the flavor of Bloomington,” he says. He even encouraged the students to volunteer around town. “They could hear English and work with people who speak English and get a working knowledge of English through volunteer opportunities. So I went to a volunteer meeting at WFHB one Saturday, and I said, ‘Whoa! I think I’d like to be a DJ!’ It just popped into my head. I had never thought of it at all.” First, though, Morris did grunt work for the station, answering phones and working at the front desk.
“About the third or fourth week, the DJ on Tuesday afternoon didn’t show up. This is like a Lou Gehrig experience. They asked me, ‘Can you fill in?’ I always have a ton of CDs in my car, so I said, ‘Give me a minute.’ I run out to my car, I get all these CDs, I bring them in — and I start doing the Tuesday afternoon show. I don’t know whose place I took but that person never got that Tuesday afternoon slot back!
“Sometimes in life,” Morris says, “things are meant to happen.”
He would go on to also host Hora Latina and the Jazz Menagerie at the station.
One of the people Morris met at WFHB was then-general manager Will Murphy, who eventually would end up at WFIU, the local NPR affiliate.
“Will was the one who brought me here,” Morris says of the Bloomington NPR station. Legendary DJ Joe Bourne was about to retire. “The door,” Morris says, “was opening.” Murphy gave Morris a call, asking him if he’d be interested in taking over Bourne’s old Friday afternoon slot. Murphy didn’t have to ask twice.
Now Morris culls gems from his personal collection of 3,000 CDs, a thousand vinyl albums, and even some 78s that were passed down from family members. Often, he leaps from genre to genre like a gazelle. Casual listeners might even scratch their heads, but there’s a method to his madness.
WFIU’s A Moment of Science host Yaël Ksander gets him. “One time she said to me, ‘Listeners have come to trust you enough that when you make those jumps, they don’t feel unsafe,’” Morris says, laughing.
Ksander laughs, too, when reminded of that line. “I just love William and his programming,” she says. “It’s the same with any good cultural curator — DJ, editor, gallerist, theater director. We rely on them to take us on a cruise of the most interesting and wonderful things. William’s jumps might seem far out or random or desultory, but you can believe he’s not just throwing spaghetti at the wall. You can just relax and go with it.”
Have I mentioned William Morris is back to practicing law? It’s like that with him. There’s always another nugget, another tidbit that pops to mind. He works for Indiana Legal Services, representing the indigent and people with workplace issues. Oh, and he teaches legal studies at Ivy Tech Community College.
So, what exactly is William Morris. “I would respond teacher,” he says without hesitation. “On the radio, as a lawyer, I’m a teacher. The best lawyers I knew back in North Carolina had been teachers first. They had impressed upon me that you teach your client the law. You teach the opposing side your client’s case. You have to teach your jury the law. You’re always teaching. And on The Soul Kitchen, I’m teaching people different kinds of music.”
I remind Brother William that, from the earliest traditions, Hebrew rabbis were both lawyers and teachers. “Makes sense,” he says. And soon, he hopes to add Episcopal deacon to his long list of titles and responsibilities.
“People who hear that now, at 60 years old, I’m going into the ministry — people that have known me for 40, 50, even 60 years, all my life — they say, ‘’Bout time!’”