Saturday, July 2, 2011

ADIEU MON AMI MORRIS


Daily Iberian  photo
 Yesterday, I received the news that Morris Raphael, one of my closest friends in New Iberia, died. Before I wing my way toward Teche country, I wanted to pay tribute in print to this unique man who had a special gift for nurturing friendships. I’ve written many articles and blogs about Morris, who at 93, was still writing books and a column in the Daily Iberian in New Iberia, Louisiana and whose mind was as keen as it had ever been during his lifetime.

Morris made significant contributions by recording the history of Acadiana and featuring people in this culture, and the accomplishment is laudable, but I think the way he supported his friends in their lifework and his deep loyalty to them deserves as much recognition as his work as a writer, artist, and engineer. He had friends all over the world with whom he kept in touch, especially friends he had made while working with Carbon Black in Brazil where he met his wife Helen, who was doing a stint there with the U.S. Information Service. Morris chronicled this story about his sojourn in Brazil in an excellent memoir entitled My Brazil Years; he also wrote a memoir about growing up in a Lebanese family in Natchez, Mississippi entitled My Natchez Years.

Morris had a highly original mind and followed his own drummer, or the Muse, whether anyone else thought his ideas would “catch on” in the literary world or not. I’m thinking in particular about his novel, Mystic Bayou, an intriguing novel featuring a plot that involved the hiding of Hitler in a Louisiana swamp. I’ve always thought the story would make a superb movie and perhaps someone who has a keen eye for scriptworthy material will discover the book and make a movie about it.

Morris also wrote children’s books, and his Ti-Nute story about a nutria who lived in City Park in New Iberia remains a good read. He loved to feature real life characters from New Iberia and its environs in his books and blatantly featured them in his stories. The Loup Garou of Cote Gelee and Maria, the Goddess of the Teche are among his best selling children’s books. Several of his book covers were executed by notable artists like George Rodrigue, Chestee Minvielle Harrington, Kate Ferry, and Morris himself—all of whom, with the exception of Morris, are natives of New Iberia.

My friend, Vickie (Border Press publisher of Morris’s last book) and I spent many mornings with Morris and Helen this Spring, drinking coffee and sampling Helen’s baked treats, talking about and working on formatting and editing Morris’s manuscript for Civil War Vignettes of Acadiana, A Sesquicentennial Commemorative, his 14th and last book, which appeared in April this year. This volume contained various human interest stories about battles in bayou country during the War Between the States and is the first book of vignettes on this subject to be published. Morris derived material from histories, diaries, letters, and personal reminiscences and rendered drawings for chapter headings that I think will become real collectibles. The illustrations are part of a collection Morris drew and painted on postcards and for some of his book covers. I was honored to be the person to whom his last book was dedicated.

When the news came of his death, I was overcome with feelings of loss for a man who chronicled bayou country as no one has done—faithfully and lovingly. He loved Acadiana, its history and people, and he and Helen offered hospitality to everyone in the area—preparing meals, hosting parties, being unofficial tour guides for newcomers to Teche country.

Every Christmas, my friend Vickie and I shared drinks and hors d’oeuvres in the Raphael home, most of the time with just a family gathering including his talented daughter Rose Anne who always flies in from California for the holidays. We often sat, watching through the windows of his living room, the slow-moving Teche flow by while we talked about writing, good food, travels, music, art…We sometimes spent hours together. Morris always told me he thought I was the undersung best writer in Teche country, and I repaid the compliment, and we began supporting one another long before writers’ groups or support sessions became popular in the contemporary literary world. Neither of us ever claimed to be an “academic,” but we’ve always been inured to spinning a good story. We once talked about producing a regional newspaper together, but this Spring we decided that we were wise not to have done so or we’d never have had time to write books.

Morris led the way with a form of publishing that is now eclipsing large publishing houses and giving authors the monetary awards and recognition they deserve—through self-publishing (not to be confused with vanity publishing in which authors pay publishing houses to publish their work). He enjoyed “laughing all the way to the bank” with his self-published profits, he once quipped, (quoting famed Liberace), as his first book, Battle in the Bayou Country, is now in its fifth printing.

Morris’s numerous awards include the Jefferson Davis Award from the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1979, induction into the Iberia Parish Second Wind Hall of Fame in 1985, and the annual Cajun Culture Award for his efforts in advancing Cajun culture in 1991. He has been president of the Attakapas Historical Association, the Iberia Cultural Association and has served on the Council of the Shadows-on-the Teche, the board of the St. Mary Chapter of Louisiana Landmarks, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He deserved all of the accolades, just as he deserves the accolades that I’m sure will be written about him this month.

When you see those fireworks light up the sky on the 4th of July, part of them will probably be Morris, making his entry into the Other World—he wanted to live long enough to celebrate the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War and he made it! Salud, old friend. You‘re already missed. May your stories endure as long as the faithful friendships you shared with those far and wide through nine decades.
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