Dr. Winsor “Verd” Morrison at his home near Hollister.
HOLLISTER – Only an Ozarker would technically attend eighth grade twice, drop out of high school, become a doctor, and deliver the first baby born in the state of Alaska.
Dr. Winsor “Verd” Morrison is that Ozarker.
A native of Ozark County, Morrison grew up in the tiny community of Zanoni, where his family operated the town’s mill, store and post office. After serving in World War II, Morrison began a career that took him through several professions, all over the country, and alongside musician Porter Wagoner and baseball legend Bill Virdon.
Eventually, that trip also took him to medical school — and to the Territory of Alaska, where he was employed with the U.S. Public Health Service.
It was there, on Jan. 3, 1959, when he delivered the first baby born in Alaska after it became the 49th state.
In contrast to his profession, it wasn’t a doctor who delivered Morrison in February 1925. Instead, it was a local midwife who came to the house and helped his mother, Alpha Bet, bring Morrison into the world.
It’s unlikely, however, that she needed much help. Morrison was her 11th child, the next in line to know an Ozarks today most have never met.
The home in Zanoni where Morrison grew up. (Courtesy of Dr. Winsor Morrison)
“I grew up helping operate the mill,” says Morrison, who notes his first name was too much for rural hill folk to handle. Instead, they called him Verd, after his middle name of Verdon.
Those folks were often seen at the post office, store and mill, where they would bring their fields’ yields for the family to process. “I remember, particularly one couple — Matt and Rachel Cockrum — who would come from back up in the hills somewhere on a horse with a bag of corn for us to grind into corn meal for them in the mill.”
The hill-hidden operation was family-fueled, with everyone pitching in when the need arose. “My dad would buy chickens and eggs and cream from the local people, and he’d take that to West Plains to sell to the produce houses,” says Morrison. “That’s how they operated the store.”
Morrison still has records from the Zanoni store’s early days.
Like any good general store, the Zanoni business operated as a mini-Walmart.
There was rope for plow lines and horse collars. Dry goods, bolts of cloth, work shoes, overalls and a few pairs of “lady” shoes. There were even metal horseshoes, with which four-legged farming feet could be shod at the Morrisons’ blacksmith shop.
“If people wanted him to, (my father) could take them to his blacksmith shop and fit them,” says Morrison. “Put cleats on them and all. And I’ve turned the crank for the bellows to heat that for fitting horse shoes.”
In a side room, things like vinegar and kerosene — known then as coal oil — awaited customers, who came with their own containers.
“I’ve gone into the side room and filled people’s jugs out of that vinegar barrel,” says Morrison. “Had a wood spigot that would fill the jug or whatever they brought.”
Despite all the work, a young Morrison still took time for book-learning.
In his youngest years, he’d walk with his siblings to the 88 School, named for the district in which it sat. After it closed due to a low number of attendees, students trekked a mile or two extra to the Bushong School, where Morrison’s sister-in-law taught grades one through eight.
As the last semester of his eighth grade year came and went, however, Morrison assumed he was finished with his education. After all, high school wasn’t a given way back when.
“But my dad said, ‘No, you’re too young to quit school,” says Morrison. “You go back another year.”
That year wasn’t to be in high school, though.
“He said, ‘All you’ll learn at high school is meanness,” says Morrison. “(My father) didn’t have more than an eighth-grade education. He was a prosperous rancher, farmer, merchant. He didn’t think there was any point in needing to go to high school.”
So, instead of high school, Morrison went back to eighth grade for a second time around.
When he started the year, however, there was a new face leading the school. The teacher, an out-of-work superintendent, found out that Morrison had already learned the eighth-grade curriculum and offered the teenager a unique opportunity.
“He said, ‘I’ll tell you what: I’ll bring you high-school books, and I’ll teach you first-year high school right here instead of going back over eighth grade,'” says Morrison. “So he brought me an algebra, first-year English, ancient history and agriculture book.”
Plans changed the next year when one of Morrison’s friends challenged him to simply get on the school bus — which trundled past the Zanoni store — and go to high school.
“I just decided, ‘Well, I’ll try it,’” says Morrison. “So I did, and Dad didn’t say a word.”
Unfortunately, that high school plan didn’t last long. Morrison was on a date with his girlfriend, Byrdella Martin, when a radio announcement on Dec. 7, 1941 changed the world forever.
“It didn’t mean much to me — I didn’t know what Pearl Harbor was,” says Morrison. “But I soon learned more about it.”
Although the subsequent declaration of war changed many aspects of life, two of the closest to home for Morrison included his brother going off to war — and the conclusion of his short-lived high-school career.
“My dad said, ‘Verd, you’re going to have to stop school and help me with the store and the mill and the place,'” says Morrison. “So I quit school. I was disappointed, but I knew it was probably necessary.”
Despite those facts, Morrison found himself allowed to leave Zanoni some months later for reasons not immediately recalled. He first headed to Kansas, where around three weeks of work in the wheat harvest earned him $65.
The work left Morrison was eager to do two things: Join the military service — which he couldn’t do since he was only 17 — and marry his sweetheart.
In Morrison’s case, the latter came before the former. On a trip back home after harvest-time, he popped the question to his teenage girlfriend, whom he initially asked out after a church meeting at the local Ball schoolhouse.
The aforementioned Byrdella said yes.
The young couple traveled a few miles from Zanoni to Brixey, a now-defunct Ozarks village, and Morrison’s uncle married them at his home on Dec. 3, 1942.
“Our mothers had to sign the certificate, but our mothers were agreeable,” says Morrison. “Back then, a lot of people got married young. Very young.”
The marriage lasted 60 years before Byrdella passed away in June 2003, only months after they finished a new home near Branson.
Back when they were 18 years old and newly married, the Morrisons soon moved from their home in Ozark County. The first stop was in Miami, Arizona, where they worked in a confectionary owned by a relation.
“He liked to hire Ozark Countainans,” says Morrison. “For one thing, he sort of knew the family, for the second thing, he knew we’d work hard.”
That lasted until Morrison decided he simply must enlist. Even though the cards were stacked against him, Morrison convinced an Army recruiter to let him take the entrance exam for the Army Air Corps (today’s Air Force), even though the recruiter said it was pointless since he hadn’t graduated from high school.
“He said you had to make 70 or 80. I made 92,” says Morrison. “So this sergeant said, ‘I won’t ever tell kids not to take the exam anymore.’”
Morrison became an aviation cadet, and was assigned to bombardier training. The eventual second lieutanant finished out the war in Hawaii, narrowly missing orders to ship out to Japan.
“While we were there on island defense, they dropped the A-bomb in Japan, and of course the war soon ended and we didn’t have to go any further,” says Morrison.
The Morrisons came back to the Ozarks after the war, and ended up on the square in West Plains — literally.
After their experience in Arizona, the young couple opened the Cinderella Confectionary along with Morrison’s brother-in-law and sister, which soon became a popular gathering place for locals.
“It was the hottest place in town,” says Morrison, noting one particular factor that worked in their favor.
“Immediately after the war, sugar was still rationed, but I was a veteran and they let me have all I needed,” he says.
The Cinderella Confectionary, which was located on the square in West Plains. (Courtesy of Dr. Winsor Morrison)
The spot introduced him a couple of famous faces, beginning with Porter Wagoner. In those days, though, Wagoner held packages of meat rather than microphones.
“He was the butcher at Sid Vaughn’s market. He’d grind hamburger and bring it down for us to use and sell,” says Morrison. “We’d call up there, ‘Porter, bring us down some hamburger meat.”
It also allowed Morrison the chance to be future baseball legend Bill Virdon’s manager.
“The old Dr. Pepper manager there once had a little baseball team in West Plains. For some reason, since I was a customer of his, he asked me to manage that little team, and Bill Virdon was the shortstop on that team,” says Morrison of the Ozarker who grew up to be a star player for the Pittsburgh Pirates. “I like to kid people and say, ‘I used to be his manager.'”
During those confectionary days, Morrison began preparing for a career change after the radio crackled some news: A story said that a limited amount of time remained for men to use their GI Bill assistance after World War II. “So I thought, ‘Man, I need to use that before it expires,’” he recalls.
After getting his General Education Diploma (GED), Morrison planned to join the Missouri State Highway Patrol. But after realizing that the patrol’s application period had closed for the year, he considered another career: medicine.
And the University of Missouri-Columbia was happy to help make that happen. After taking a four-part entrance exam and his commission in the Army Air Corps into account, they enrolled Morrison as a second-year student.
“I went back to visit my friends in West Plains, and I said, ‘Well, I’m a sophomore now,” says Morrison of a visit shortly after his enrollment, still laughing at his friends’ reaction: “What?!”
That quick advancement was followed by challenging semesters, especially for someone who hadn’t had much formal education beyond a few months of high school. The pressure intensified after Morrison decided to build himself a house while attending classes — which ultimately became a great resume builder.
“When I went before the admission committee at the medical school and told them I’d built that house while taking organic chemistry, they wanted to talk more about the house than my education,” says Morrison. “So I got admitted to medical school. A lot of people applied, but I got admitted.”
Fast forward four years, when Morrison graduated from medical school. The new MD packed up his wife and kids and moved to Washington as an intern in the U.S. Public Health Service. “I thought we were doing great, because I was making $327 a month there,” he says.
At the end of the internship, Morrison ended up going north where the health service operated a hospital in Alaska. “It was an Alaskan ‘native’ hospital and it was on an island across the channel from Sitka,” says Morrison.
On Jan. 3, 1959, one of the local women was in labor in the hospital. “Old Ben Braer, the associate director, said, ‘Win, don’t you have a woman in labor?'” recalls Morrison. “Maybe you could deliver the first baby in the state of Alaska.”
At 9:30 a.m., it turns out that’s exactly what happened. “She delivered this little baby 30 minutes after Eisenhower had declared it a state,” says Morrison.
Today, a framed certificate proudly memorializes the moment on the doctor’s office wall.
Dr. Winsor Morrison’s certificate proving his delivery of the first baby in the state of Alaska.
That time in Alaska was history-making for Morrison in other ways as well. While he was there, he became interested in otolaryngology, which primarily focuses on conditions of the ear, nose, throat (ENT).
“These natives — a lot of them had chronic ear disease,” says Morrison. The young doctor ended up providing post-surgical care for many of them who were treated by a visiting ENT doctor, who would periodically come up from Seattle.
“I thought, ‘Why doesn’t the Public Health System have their own ENT doctor?,'” recalls Morrison. “So I applied for their program.”
The decision ultimately took him to Staten Island, N.Y., where he was trained in the specialty. It also set off several moves across the country — including back to Missouri his otolaryngology training at Barnes Hospital — as well as into the hearts and minds of students during his tenure as a university professor.
He spent time as the chairman of the Otolaryngology Department at the University of Tennessee, and later moved to south to the University of Mississippi and re-established the institution’s otolaryngology residency.
After retiring from full-time work, Morrison even took several temporary doctoring assignments in North Dakota before he and Byrdella retired to Branson in 2002.
“And all with no high school education,” says Morrison with a laugh.