UW News

July 8, 2004

A teacher, a donation, a debt repaid

James Morrison was surprised when Bruce Adee, acting chairman of mechanical engineering, called him and asked him to come meet with Henry Schatz, an alumnus wishing to donate money to the department.

Morrison, a retired mechanical engineering professor, remembered Schatz, who had come through his classes in the early 60s, but except for some brief meetings by happenstance, he had not been in touch with his former student since then.

So it came as a shock when Schatz, the CEO of General Plastics Manufacturing Co. in Tacoma announced he was giving $2 million to mechanical engineering — $1 million for student scholarships and $1 million for a chair to be named in Morrison’s honor.

“I about fell off my chair,” said Morrison, who has been officially retired from the University since 1982 and taught his last class in 1988. “I didn’t do anything special with him. He was just one of my students.”

Apparently, Schatz saw it differently. When the gift was announced at the mechanical engineering graduation ceremony, Schatz said it was in Morrison’s class in dynamics that he “learned how to think.”

It was a touching tribute to a man who spent more than 40 years devoted almost exclusively to his students. Confining his research to summers at the Applied Physics Lab, Morrison labored in the classroom during the school year, trying to give students the tools to figure things out for themselves. He did it, he said, to repay a debt.

The debt was incurred during World War II, when Morrison bailed out of a crippled B-29 over China. He and his 10 cohorts were rescued by communist guerrillas who smuggled them through Japanese-held territory and turned them over — 101 days later — to an American intelligence group.

“I thought, I really owe those guys something, but I don’t know who they are,” Morrison said. “Since there was no way to repay them, I decided I had to pay back the human race somehow.”

But he didn’t get a chance to do that right away. After the war he worked for Boeing and came to the University one day to inquire about a master’s degree program. The chair of mechanical engineering asked Morrison if he’d ever given any thought to teaching and said the GI bill was creating quite a flood of students. He sent Morrison to speak to the man in charge of general engineering, the series of courses that all first-year students at that time took.

“He not only offered me a job; he wanted me to start that evening,” Morrison said. Remembering his promise to repay his debt, he said yes. “Teaching looked like an opportunity to help a lot of people,” he said. And it didn’t hurt that the job paid more than what he was earning at Boeing.

That night, Morrison said, he wandered around the class, which was in drawing, talking to the students as they worked. “I’d ask a student, ‘Do you think you see what to do?’ And he’d say, ‘Well one thing I don’t get is ….’ And I’d help him think it through. I found out that I have an inborn ability to figure out where somebody’s head is and lead him to the right place.”

It was an ability he made abundant use of. Beginning as an instructor, Morrison steadily rose through the ranks to full professor, earning his master’s degree along the way. Almost no one in engineering had a doctorate in those days, he said.

His students were always his biggest fans. In fact, when psychology Professor Edwin Guthrie (for whom Guthrie Hall is named) conducted a survey of students, asking them who the best professor they’d ever had was, Morrison’s name came up repeatedly. The survey earned him the notice of the dean of engineering and helped him get his first promotion.

Morrison was a full professor by the time Schatz became his student in the 1960s, but he hadn’t lost his enthusiasm for the classroom.

“He taught us to think analytically, logically, critically — to look for the things that may not be apparent without thinking it through. That was different from anything I had before. This was a life lesson,” Schatz said. “It applied not just to engineering, but to other situations in life, to raising your family, to growing a garden, dealing with traffic and kids and with other people, in addition to the latest project you’re taking on at work.”

Schatz acknowledged that there was no close, ongoing relationship with Morrison over the years. But the retired professor’s lessons have stayed with him, and he hopes his donation will help up-and-coming engineers grasp ideas that will be similarly beneficial.

The scholarships he is funding are intended to support undergraduate students early in their engineering careers. The James B. Morrison Endowed Chair in Mechanical Engineering will be filled in the next year by someone who balances teaching and research.

Just like James Morrison, who said of his career: “Teaching turned out to be fun. I couldn’t believe they paid you to do it.”