In His 80s, Neil Morgan Showed Young People How to Do Young
Morgan mentored many generations. He demanded that young people be young and that older people pay attention to what the youth were doing.
Young people are great, but they can be pretty ignorant.
I was. In 2003, after a firestorm tore through San Diego neighborhoods, I remember giggling that the U-T’s city columnist, Neil Morgan, was trying to dub the event The Great Fire.
I didn’t know anything about him, or San Diego for that matter. Of course, I thought I knew everything.
What I didn’t know was that for several decades, Morgan had helped San Diego residents understand their city. No matter what happened in the news, and how many people had already written about it, Neil’s was the voice for which many people waited.
And then, one day, out of nowhere, the U-T fired him. More than five decades of work – at one point, according to a fellow newsman, he was San Diego’s best-known person – were all washed away.
I heard the news and learned more about the man. I found myself stunned by the depth of his impact and the accumulation of love he had built up in the community.
Soon enough, I appeared on TV with him, after the death of Helen Copley, the publisher of the U-T and his friend. The stories of how she shielded him from advertisers’ wrath at his columns were mesmerizing.
He gave a rip-roaring speech to the Society of Professional Journalists. I was shocked. Here was an 80-year-old with more fire than many of my 20-something friends.
But I still didn’t know that he was about to change my life forever.
I got an inkling, though, a few weeks later when he and I and his friend Bob Witty sat in the Imperial House in Banker’s Hill. As I sat in one of that place’s big, hulking chairs, I listened to their great stories of the past and tried to persuade them that, yes, I belonged in this new venture they were plotting.
A nonprofit, online newsroom. Morgan had hatched the idea with philanthropist Buzz Woolley. And now they wanted energetic young people to help them make it a reality. Far from retiring, or licking his wounds, or resting, Morgan wanted to create a storm. He understood the web, used it, and he wanted to hop on the wave.
He was 80!
Soon enough, I got to be one of those young people he entrusted.
And then I blinked, and a moment later Woolley and Morgan had tapped Andrew Donohue and me to lead this group.
One day, shortly after this transition, he insisted I join him on stage at what would be one of his last big public performances. UCSD TV had asked him to lecture and take questions on his lifelong theme about San Diego: “Onward to Where.”
I was nervous. When we got arranged on stage, he tapped me on the shoulder and winked. And then he said, simply, “Your turn.”
As we reflect on Neil, my colleagues and I have all focused on the same thing: his notes to us. More specifically, the hundreds of short emails he would send us.
They were poetry. They were always great. When we got them, we would sometimes read them aloud in his voice and laugh.
Kelly Bennett called them “notes of propulsion.” Donohue said they “had a way of exploding like a firecracker under your desk chair.”
This 80-something wasn’t always full of praise. Sometimes he would kindly chide us for being too restrained.
Once, he cc’d me on an email to a fan who was worried not enough people were reading Voice of San Diego.
“We certainly need to be more fun, more magnetic to our audience, more youthful. We have a marvelously youthful staff; some of their bright outlook shows through online; most doesn’t,” he wrote.
He demanded we be controversial, that we generate discussion. But we always had to believe in San Diego, believe it was strong enough to meet its biggest challenges. We could be tough. But we could not be pessimistic.
On stage at that UCSD TV gathering, he said he worried about San Diego.
“We’re still uncertain who we are in San Diego or what we may become and yet the stakes grow desperately higher, year by year. Is San Diego a place or a city or a county or a dream?” he asked.
And then he added a warning that I hear still every week I pursue this effort:
“Too often we have awoken too late to win land use battles that shape our city forever,” he said.
Watching the tributes to Morgan come in, I’m struck by how many people younger than him, whether they are 50 or 30, are sad.
He mentored many generations. He demanded that young people be young and that older people pay attention to what the youth were doing.
And by living that way, even when he was 80, the moment he was pushed out the door of his life’s work, he was able to start something that not only changed my life, it has changed many. Now, dozens of other communities around the country are following he and Woolley’s lead with nonprofit, online news ventures.
“Neil passionately loved San Diego and journalism. As co-founder of Voice, he leaves a lasting legacy that reflects his passions,” Woolley said Saturday.
One of the lessons Morgan gave me was to treat journalism as more than words on paper. To him, journalism was an encounter with the community. It could happen online, on paper, at an event or at one of the many lunches he’d arrange with smart people from across San Diego.
And now, he’s not really gone.
He’s just winked at us all and said, “Your turn.”