Arthur Ernest Morgan (1878–1975), engineer, visionary, educator, and community organizer, founded Community Solutions, then Community Service, Inc., in 1940. Here is an appreciation by Mark Bernstein.
Arthur Morgan: A Mover of Earth, A Pourer of Concrete, A Shaper of Minds
The legend says that while moving earth for Huffman Dam northeast of Dayton in 1918, workers uncovered a rounded granite boulder that the chief engineer directed be set to one side, so it could one day be used as his grave marker. Nearly sixty years later, says the story, when the stone was hoisted onto a flatbed truck for delivery, an axle supposedly broke beneath the weight. Even in legend, Arthur Morgan had no small intentions.
The man himself had little time for legends or art. The facts and what could be done with the facts were the driving force in his life. And the facts of his long, long life are impressive.
He moved earth, a great deal of it. The work on the Miami Conservancy District, of which the Huffman Dam was a part, required 21 draglines, 29 locomotives and 200 dump cars. That project, undertaken to secure Dayton against a recurrence of the 1913 flood, was so successful that most in the Gem City today are unaware of it.
He moved earth, and he poured concrete. As first chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, he directed construction that in aggregate was twelve times the size of the Egyptian pyramids. Franklin Roosevelt, hesitating to dismiss this increasingly unmalleable subordinate, explained, "He builds good dams."
He moved earth, and he poured concrete, but his primary interest was in moving men. Life was limited, Arthur Morgan believed, not by human nature, but by the meanness of prevailing patterns. Progress would come, he held, when better patterns were presented, presented so convincingly as to win the hearts and the energies of men.
Years later, his elder son Ernest recalled how his father would muse over the image of a wild duck, flying with broad even strokes to a blue speck on the horizon that only it could see. Arthur Morgan was that voyager, and the speck for which he was bound was utopia.
Arthur Morgan was born in 1878 a few lots north of Hope Avenue, on the street next uphill from the River Road, a half mile downstream of the center of Cincinnati. His father dabbled, selling notions on the streets of the city, attending irregular surveying classes in Lebanon, and one day packing up the family to seek opportunity in the north.
St Cloud, Minnesota, was the end of the line, a raw frontier town at the northern-most navigable point on the Mississippi. There Morgan had a sickly childhood: meningitis nearly killed him, and measles weakened his sight, but he could feel and hear the conflict between his parents. His mother was a hardshell Baptist, pious and determined; his father's broader outlook covered a drinking problem sufficient to keep the Morgan family dry for three generations.
Dinner was the ground where the battles were fought, battles in which Arthur could not resist joining. He resolved to master his rage. "Once at dinner I was more than halfway through the meal and had not lost control of myself," he recalled. "I got up and left the table, so as to encourage myself with having made a record."
He made a record, he mastered his anger, but he swallowed the conflict without digesting it. The tension remained, taking the form of a ferocious drive for which St. Cloud offered no sufficient object.
So he lit out for the territories; not heart free like Huck Finn half a century before, but almost with a sense of being driven. Traveling with a high school friend, he wrote his sister of stopping at a store to wait for a man who was said to have work. Young men lounged around the porch, he wrote, "whittling their lives away, and are probably there yet. I happened to think, 'What if I should catch the same lethargy?' and we got up and left."
Moving on alone, Morgan floated a three-foot-wide log thirty miles down the Mississippi from Anoka and began working his way to Colorado. He picked fruit. He set type. He delivered goods. He mined coal. He bought fifty 30-cent editions of Ruskin, Carlyle, Goethe, Emerson and Kipling and tried selling them to
Honest work, all of it, but Morgan interpreted that phrase somewhat more broadly than most. He had vowed to take no employment that "in its essential character was not a contribution to human well-being." His favorite job was at a lumber camp in the Rockies. The scenery was spectacular, and the once frail youth enjoyed his association with the lumbermen. But Morgan learned the mill was sawing wood to be used to construct a gambling hall at a nearby mining camp. Morgan was opposed to gambling – years later he would boast that he didn't know one playing card from another – so he quit.
While in Colorado, Morgan completed his formal education, taking a scattering of classes for a part of a year at the University of Colorado. His eyesight and resources would not sustain the effort, however, and so, alone and dead broke, he returned home.
But not particularly in defeat, and after
Despite the prickliness of his conscience, he had a good eye for life's practicalities. After much thought, he decided to become a water control engineer; he loved the outdoors, but more to the point, water control was an undeveloped field, one in which his lack of training might be a relatively small handicap.
He had a gift, as well, for self-promotion. Minnesota had no statewide standards for drainage control, and in l904 – at age twenty–six – Morgan volunteered to draft them for the state engineering society. Given a task no one else wanted, Morgan worked assiduously, and the following year the society adopted his proposals, which were then written into law by the state. The governor offered Morgan the post of
He declined. Wider fields were opening. Based on a competitive national examination, he was one of four engineers hired by the Department of Agriculture's Office of Drainage Investigation.
He left Minnesota to pursue his work but also perhaps to distance himself as well from the death of his first wife, Urania, just four months after the birth of their first child, Ernest. Later, he would feel remorse at his absences, worry that if he were to die, his son – left in the care of relatives – would grow up an orphan, and so he wrote a series of letters to be given to young Ernest at age two, age five, age eight, and so on, should anything happen to him.
Remarkable letters. Never sent, but remarkable still; never quite convincingly warm, nonetheless compassionate, filled with admonition and somewhat distant advice. Young Ernest was enjoined to "avoid a life limited in its aims to the ordinary aims of men, and work out a practical, active, useful life," bearing in mind that "the very deepest doubts you have do not affect your everyday life as deeply as you think. Do you ever imagine any possible development of truth which will make it desirable for you to be cruel, impure, selfish or indolent?"
The style of writing would, with little modification, stay with Morgan. The sentences were long, the phrases graceful, but nonetheless sparse, spare, with the engineer's reach for efficiency combining with a Puritan’s horror of waste to lock every word in its place, bricks in a wall, and never a subordinate clause to explain what he meant by duty, character, honesty, progress and truth.
He knew what he meant by duty. Twice while working for the agriculture department, the deadline on major projects passed before the task was complete. Both times, Morgan was ordered back to Washington. Both times, he refused. They could fire him if they wished, but he would not leave a job half finished. Both times he was allowed to remain.
He knew what he meant by honesty. Once, in temporary charge of the agency's Washington office, he refused to release a report on the Everglades because he believed it a cover for a get-rich-quick land scheme. Backers of the plan had Morgan's supervisor dismissed. Morgan went to the press, sparking a Congressional investigation that led to the "resignation" of those officials in league with the developers and the reinstatement of Morgan's supervisor.
By then, Morgan was out of government. In 1910, he established the Morgan Engineering Company in Memphis. The following year, he married Lucy Griscom, a young biology instructor on the Wellesley faculty, whose Quaker sense of mission would do little to soften her husband's drive. At 33, Morgan had, at long last, completed his apprenticeship.
"Monday it seemed as if the windows of heaven had opened. The rain descended in floods. The sky would lighten, the sun seem at the point of shining. Then another black mass of clouds would sweep across the sky. There was lightning and mad rain. Time and again throughout the day the process would be repeated." – Dayton Daily News, April 5, 1913
The Great Miami River rose the day after Easter, pouring over its banks and inundating downtown Dayton at a rate of 250,000 cubic feet of water a second. When floodwaters crested on Wednesday, March 26, 10 square miles of the city were covered. John H. Patterson, head of National Cash Register, wired The New York Times: "Situation here desperate. All people, except on outskirts, imprisoned by water. They have had no food, no drinking water, no light, no heat for two days."
Even as he wired The Times, Patterson was converting NCR to the mass production of rowboats with which to reach the stranded. As the waters receded, Dayton's energetic civic leadership shifted its concern to preventing a repetition of the disaster. A Flood Prevention Committee – urging Daytonians to "Remember the Promises You Made in the Attic" – raised $2 million toward that task.
At that point, Edward Hanley, Democratic "boss" of the city, told the committee's chairman, Colonel Edward Deeds, that the city council was about to name a flood control engineer, one more likely to be politically correct than professionally competent. If Deed's committee wanted a professional, Hanley added, it had better move fast. It did. Contacted in Memphis on a Saturday, Morgan was in the flood-stricken city by Monday noon and was hired by day's end.
The main hindrance to successful large-scale flood control, Morgan told city leaders, was that public clamor to "make the dirt fly" would cause officials to press ahead with inadequate plans. Flood control for Dayton, he insisted, must be approached regionally, and that would require lengthy and painstaking planning. Rather to Morgan's surprise, Deeds' committee agreed.
Dayton might be united, but cities upstream believed that protection for Dayton would mean destruction for them. When the state legislature passed the enabling act for the Miami Conservancy District, a newspaper in Troy claimed the law would "bring Ruin, Death or Starvation to Miami County."
While Deeds took the campaign to the public in an energetic speaking tour, Morgan initiated extensive engineering studies. He posed a question so fundamental that its answer had never seriously been sought: How much flood control is enough? Before the 1913 flood, Dayton had considered a flood control plan that would guard the city against a hypothetical flow of 90,000 cubic feet a second. The real flood was nearly three times that size.
Morgan sent an engineering team to Washington to undertake the first comprehensive rainfall analysis ever attempted. Gathering half a million facts, they plotted detailed maps for the 160 greatest storms in the country's history.
The 1913 disaster was regarded as a 500-year flood; that is, the greatest flow of water to be expected in five centuries. How much larger might a thousand-year flood be? Morgan sent an engineer to a castle on the Danube where high-water points for floods had been marked for nine centuries. The Great Flood of 1066, his engineer reported, was only 25 percent larger than a hundred-year flood. Leaving a margin for error, Morgan decided to design for a flow 40 percent above that of 1913.
Opposition upstream, especially in areas that felt themselves likely candidates for a dam site, ran high. Englewood, where Morgan lived with his wife and their children, was one of them. Neighborhood boys taunted Ernest, the eldest, but never harmed him because, Ernest decided, they feared "the aura of evil that emanated from my father, who was going to drown them all."
Morgan now practiced what he termed "conclusive engineering analysis," by which all options were studied in detail until they were ruled out. For the Miami Conservancy District, one such idea was the construction of dry dams, empty reservoirs that would be farmable in normal years, but into which floodwaters could be diverted in emergency, permitting only such runoff as the river could safely carry away.
Initially, dry dams were a minor option, but as engineering studies came in they gained in attraction. A chief characteristic of the Great Miami – which "rises to rain like a trout to a fly" – was the variability of its flow. Dry dams would handle that variation; suitable sites were available – sites free of cities, factories and railroads.
At the time, there was no American precedent for an earthen dry dam scheme, and European examples were small scale. Morgan noted that "the thought of dams without water behind them offended some people's intuitions of propriety and provided a text for the opposition." That opposition gathered en masse in Dayton's Memorial Hall on October 3,1916, when Morgan presented his plans to the Miami Conservancy Court.
Morgan's "cross examination had not more than started," the Dayton Daily News reported, "before it was apparent to everyone that he had a grasp of the subject clearly beyond anything that was to be expected." Every alternative plan put forward by opponents had already been studied by Morgan's engineers; studied in depth, rejected and the reasons for that rejection made clear. "During the five days that Mr. Morgan was on the stand, there was no request for information made... that was not met with instant response. The promptness and thoroughness of the answer was always more surprising and unexpected than the question itself."
Legal challenges and other delays followed, but the major hurdle was past. On January 27, 1918, work began on Huffman Dam, the first of five earthen structures that ring Dayton to this day, and which have never spilled a drop.
In Dayton one morning in 1919, an acquaintance remarked that the morning paper had announced Morgan's appointment as a trustee of Antioch College. "This," Morgan wrote subsequently, "was news to me." Indeed, Morgan – who for six years had lived within thirty miles of the school – had never heard of the place, which may stand as fair comment on the low fortune to which the institution had fallen.
Antioch had been founded nobly enough. In 1853, Horace Mann – "the father of the public school" – left the comforts of New England to plant the seeds of enlightenment in the recently turned soil of southwestern Ohio. At Antioch, that seed fell on stony ground. Local sponsors were fundamentalist in outlook, and Mann, worn out by inadequate finances and doctrinal infighting, collapsed and died not long after his ringing 1859 commencement address in which he enjoined his graduates to "be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."
If Mann had won a victory in Ohio, it was an obscure one. The college continued as a largely local institution, with more ups than downs, until 1919, when final liquidation loomed. And so, the newly appointed trustee drove out with his wife, Lucy, to Yellow Springs, home of the college, for a first-hand assessment. Though the campus was bordered by an extraordinary natural area, both the work of Mann and the works of man were in pitiable condition. Plumbing, Morgan noted, was nonexistent; heating inadequate; and much dormitory space in a state of abandonment and disrepair. Rainwater cisterns and household pumps substituted for a water system.
Morgan considered the situation excellent. "I believe it is near enough dead," he wrote, "to start over in the form I dream of." Other men might have been preoccupied with overseeing the largest flood control project of the day, but Morgan's imagination always teemed with new ideas, many of them concerned with transforming American higher education, which he considered dangerously narrow, overspecialized and out of touch with the practical world. He itched to put his ideas into practice.
Now considering the Conservancy task nearing completion, Morgan found he was being offered a college for his own; lock, stock and cistern. If the board didn't know that when they appointed Morgan a trustee, they learned of it forcefully six weeks later, when he presented his "Plan for Practical Industrial Education."
Time would alter and amend Morgan's design, but its basic elements were these: first, an extensive and rigorous general education program to ground students in the wider culture. Second, the alternation of on campus study with equally long periods of off campus employment, to provide vocational experience and a knowledge of day-to-day realities. Third, the shaping of personal purpose through required essays with titles like "College Aims" and "Life Aims."
Morgan's purpose was wholeness; his aim was the creation of broadly educated, technically proficient, socially conscious professionals who would act as agents of human betterment in the nation's cities and towns. Antioch, he told its board, could turn out such graduates and, by doing so, would be "a significant factor in our civilization."
Probably more than a little overwhelmed, the trustees of the moribund college directed Morgan to proceed.
He did not intend to become Antioch's president, but when a year-long search failed to turn up anyone he considered more qualified, Morgan asked to be appointed to the post. The trustees complied. Increasingly, the board consisted of men Morgan had himself recruited: Charles Kettering, the inventor, and Ellery Sedgewick, editor of Atlantic Monthly, as well as the chief engineer of Ford, the dean of Harvard's business school and others.
Morgan was less successful in attracting faculty. The academic luminaries he sought – John Dewey, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., and others – begged off. The men Morgan wanted from business commanded salaries he could not afford. In the end, Morgan largely hired young PhDs from Harvard and the University of Chicago, trusting to his own messianic abilities to lead them to his new Jerusalem.
Thus, a young mathematics instructor from Ohio State University came down for the afternoon to interview as a possible short-term replacement. "I thought he'd ask me a lot of questions," J. D. Dawson recalls. "He didn't. He sat back and started to talk about his dreams for the college. I was enthralled." Dawson came for the term and stayed with Morgan and Antioch for four decades.
Similarly, Morgan persuaded Aldo Henderson, a promising graduate student at Harvard, to come to Ohio to visit the school. "We got off the train," Henderson recalls, "and the dean met us and took us to stay in a house with no indoor plumbing and a pump near the street." Henderson went to discuss with Morgan what courses he might teach. Morgan didn't want to talk about courses. He wanted to talk about a bronze foundry. Should he start one in an abandoned barn near campus? What did Henderson think? Why didn't Henderson look into the matter and make a report? Henderson did, urged it be built, and stayed to become dean of the college and Morgan's successor.
By the second year of Morgan's administration, enrollment had grown from 40 to 400; the faculty from 6 to 45; and the budget from $10,000 to half a million. Under its new president, Antioch became an entrepreneurial college, both in fact and in spirit. College and student-run enterprises circled the campus: Antioch Press, Antioch Foundry, Antioch Landscaping and for a time in the 1920s – when Morgan discovered a man who believed health worked its way up from the feet – Antioch Shoe, with sales reaching a third of a million dollars in four Midwestern states.
With one hand, Morgan kept a finger in every pie; with the other, he baked more pies. He hoped these small industries would be experiments in industrial innovation, sites for student employment and the source of profits for the college. The plan faltered – the college lacked the managerial resources to make it work – but much else succeeded, and the alternating work-study plan was a triumph, both academically and with students.
"I couldn't imagine how it would work," said J. D. Dawson. "Five-week shifts, then go away? How in heck could students learn mathematics that way? I was wrong. I realized you don't learn anything the first time you think about it. If you go away and return, the residue is greater."
Increasingly, the experiment looked good, even to orthodox eyes. In 1927, an accrediting team reported that while Antioch failed all but two of its standard criteria, it nonetheless ranked with Oberlin as the best in the state.
Morgan was frequently absent from campus, seeking the contributions to keep his experiment afloat. On campus, he was an austere figure, someone, one student recalls, "you didn't speak to except on a very elevated plane." Tall, somewhat gaunt, bordering on handsome, Morgan always wore white shirts with long sleeves firmly buttoned and often the red ties favored by his wife, Lucy, whose own high-mindedness set much of the social tone of the college. She was not, says one who knew her then, "tolerant of laziness or of unhealthy habits, of a tendency to maybe want to have a drink." She hosted teas for faculty wives on Friday afternoons, events to which the women were expected to bring their mending or handwork so they wouldn't simply sit there, idle.
Her husband's views were similar. He didn't understand sports and games; if people needed exercise, why didn't they do something productive, like chop wood, like he did? He had no "timewasters" in his life. When a faculty member made reference to an article in Saturday Evening Post, Morgan was genuinely startled; where had he found the time to read something so inessential?
He could be petty, especially about liquor. He could be Philistine, showing little interest in art or drama. He could be pompous, as when he lectured the faculty on their genetic responsibility to reproduce, lest the offspring of their inferiors inherit the earth. Dean Henderson quickly surveyed the faculty and, finding their average family size comparable to Morgan's, told him he should address his genetic responsibility more closely to home. The president made no further comments on the subject.
Yet, in barely a decade, Morgan transformed a college dead in all but name and, by force of idea and personality, made it into what was increasingly regarded as one of the nation's best. He traveled widely, spoke often, consulted frequently, wrote on every subject under the sun and, in the end, quite frankly, was exhausted. When the Depression cut into the contributions on which the college's never-secure solvency rested, he neared despair. In 1931, he sailed to Europe, to think, to brood and to decide – in a monastery in Portugal – that it was time to denounce the whole enterprise.
He wrote the entire college what came melodramatically to be known as the "Epistle from Portugal," a lengthy letter read by Dean Henderson to an increasingly stricken campus assembly.
"Such as they are," Morgan began with characteristic bluntness, "there are too many colleges in America." Colleges should exist, he stated, only if they offer something distinctively valuable. "We have," Morgan decreed "to a large degree failed." Failed, Morgan said, because of his own pettiness and faultfinding; failed, because of the moral and social decadence of the students; failed, because of the disdain for heroism among the faculty; failed, because of the "infrequent occurrence of great expectations." Failed.
It was almost as though Moses had shattered the tablets without even descending Mt. Sinai. "I excused it a bit on his part," Henderson says. "He'd been under a great deal of stress." Rounds of self-study, committees and conferences ensued, but in truth, an uneasy truce existed between the college and its creator until, in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt invited Arthur Morgan to the White House.
In the first fluid days of Roosevelt's administration, the national logjam was breaking. One of those logs was stuck in the Tennessee River in northern Alabama at Muscle Shoals, site of a half-finished hydroelectric dam. Begun during the First World War to produce nitrates for gunpowder and fertilizer, it had run out of war and run out of money. Between 1921 and 1933, 138 separate bills on Muscle Shoals were introduced in Congress, never resolving the question of government versus private operation of the site.
Meanwhile, the region was largely without power. The electric age, a generation old in urban America, had not yet dawned in the back hills and dusty lanes of Tennessee and Alabama, where only one farmhouse in twenty-five had electricity. Public power advocates hoped Roosevelt would back completion of Muscle Shoals.
But when Morgan met with the President, FDR spoke little of Muscle Shoals or of electricity, but more of the Tennessee River – potentially the region's greatest asset – which each spring pulled more topsoil from the denuded hillsides, rutting the fields, turning creeks into gullies and forcing the farmers progressively higher up the progressively less fertile slopes. FDR spoke of the need to recreate the life of the region – where many farmers received a cash income of less than $100 a year – through flood control, reforestation, new agricultural practices, diversified small industry and more.
Roosevelt was assigning this task to a newly-created Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), with broad responsibilities throughout the 40,000-square-mile watershed. Did Arthur Morgan wish to be its first chairman?
"Morgan," says J. D. Dawson, "was in the seventh heaven."
He hit the ground running, leaving the impasse at Antioch so rapidly it was not entirely clear who was in charge or whether Morgan would ever return. Morgan believed that at Antioch the great opportunity had been lost by trying too little, moving too slowly. Now, he would try more and move with rhythms dictated by the size of the problem.
The Depression had thrown vast numbers of skilled technicians out of work; Morgan wanted them, traveling 10,000 miles in five weeks to find and recruit the best. He recruited the two other directors as well who with Morgan would constitute the TVA board: Harcourt Morgan (no relation), president of the University of Tennessee and an experienced agronomist, and David Lilienthal, young champion of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission.
Establishing offices in Knoxville, Morgan rapidly initiated engineering studies, assembled construction staffs for the great dams that would follow, outlined an extensive forestry program, made plans for a cement works, a dry ice factory, sweeping socio-economic reforms and much else. At the board's first formal meeting, the other directors were mildly aghast that Morgan had moved so far, so soon – and what was perhaps more to the point – with so little consultation.
Lilienthal and Harcourt Morgan did not share Arthur Morgan's enthusiasm for the broader purposes of the TVA. They worried over his apparently chaotic pie-baking administrative style, and they were mildly appalled when Morgan presented an eight-page "Code of Ethics" for TVA employees, which proposed to ban everything from "lax sex morality" to "greed." Barely three months into the agency's existence, they rebelled.
On July 31, 1933, Lilienthal and Harcourt Morgan – representing a majority of the board – presented an ultimatum. Lilienthal would handle legal matters and electric power policy; Harcourt Morgan would direct agricultural programs; Arthur Morgan could build his dams, direct the forestry program and leave the others alone. Morgan's own "hundred days" had ended in a palace coup.
But Morgan won important concessions. If the TVA dams were built by contractors, he pointed out, months would be lost drawing up specifications for bids; if it used its own labor force, preliminary work could begin immediately and make a dent in unemployment. The majority agreed. That work force, Morgan added, would need housing; if the board would authorize an extra $1 million, he could create something better than the usual tar-paper shacks. Reluctantly, the majority authorized the expenditure.
Morgan took the money and built the town of Norris, Tennessee. "When I was a boy," Morgan wrote years later, "I wanted to get a construction job. The boss where I had applied told me, 'All right, get you a blanket and a woman and come along'." Construction camps were typically shantytowns, housing a drifting population of workers who turned up missing, headed off drunk and surfaced weeks later at another job site when their money ran out.
TVA, Morgan thought, could do better. At Norris, his planning staff laid out a model town, small all-electric homes set on winding streets, plus dormitories, a cafeteria and a community building. Morgan brought in J. D. Dawson from Antioch to direct a social and educational program. Workers on each shift were offered four-hour courses in farming, dairying, stock breeding and chicken raising at the demonstration farm; and classes in iron working, furniture making and draftsmanship in the village.
"We'd stock the camp store with good reading material," says Dawson. "People'd say, ‘They won't read that'; but they did. We hired a nutritionist for the camp cafeteria. People said, 'They're not going to eat salads, they want cornmeal and pork.' We put out a regular menu, and they just ate it up."
Lilienthal was later to dismiss all this as "basket-weaving," and to argue that rural self-sufficiency was no more likely than "the Second Coming of Daniel Boone." But Morgan believed the programs went beyond "uplift." They more than paid for themselves, he said.
Absenteeism was low; morale was high; and efficiency such that the Norris dam – which army engineers had estimated would take four years to build – was completed in less than two and a half.
By 1935, five dams were under construction, and Morgan's construction program was widely hailed as a model of efficiency. The dams were massive structures – when completed, Kentucky Dam, 206 feet high, 1,810 feet long and 140 feet wide at the maximum, would back up the Tennessee River for 184 miles. As the great dams neared completion, the question of how the electricity they generated would be sold gained prominence.
To progressives, the private utilities were the scourge of the l920s, a decade in which they had been conglomerated by holding companies, organizations that produced not megawatts but millionaires. Thirteen such holding companies controlled three-quarters of the private electricity in the country, which they offered at high rates and low volume.
To Morgan, the question of public versus private power was entirely empirical. TVA would test who could do the job best. Privately, he had little doubt that his dams and his engineers would easily win, all the more reason to see the test was conducted fairly. He would not, Morgan insisted, attempt to "out-lie" the private utilities, and whatever their behavior in the past, until they lied to him personally, he was prepared to take them at their word.
Lilienthal was more inclined to take them by the throat. He viewed Morgan's high-mindedness as hopelessly naive. By the mid-1930s, conservative opponents had secured nearly 1,000 injunctions against New Deal measures, often on the flimsiest grounds, and several against the TVA. Allied with Harcourt Morgan, Lilienthal controlled the TVA board; they approved each other's proposals and they voted Morgan's down. And Lilienthal maneuvered shrewdly, by phone, by letter, by leaks to the press, to gain influence with those who had influence.
FDR tried to reconcile his squabbling subordinates. At one point, he wrote Morgan to suggest that everyone get together for a chat, for FDR had always believed there was no problem gentlemen could not solve if they sat down with a snifter of brandy and a good cigar. Somewhat awkwardly, the president added that he knew Morgan neither drank nor smoked.
Which, in some ways, was the point. Morgan wasn't simply non-political, he was anti-political; both outside of and opposed to the entire world in which gentlemen and brandy rubbed elbows and made decisions. He believed, for example, that patronage appointments were the bane of government. At TVA, he maintained, all positions – from ditch digger to supervising engineer – would be filled by competitive examination. And Morgan held to that position despite the cries of anguished outrage from congressmen in five states.
To Morgan, the issue was the sacrifice of the TVA ideal to Lilienthal's power policy, both electric and personal. Finally, Morgan felt Lilienthal had crossed the Morgan line between honesty and cupidity, charging that Lilienthal was party to a deal by a prominent local Democrat to sell to the TVA at top prices a worthless marble quarry. In crying scandal, Morgan cost himself the support of the one man who mattered – Roosevelt.
FDR was serene with squabbling, but sensitive to the scent of scandal, especially with the memory of the Republicans' Teapot Dome still fresh in the public mind. He resolved to invite the three directors to the Oval Office and, in closed session, demand that Morgan detail or withdraw his various charges.
Summoned peremptorily to the White House on March 11,1938, Morgan noted that his co–directors had stacks of prepared statements, even though they supposedly had no more notice of the meeting than he. Feeling as though he'd been invited to his own hanging, Morgan refused to cooperate. For six hours, in what The New York Times called "the most unusual meeting of its kind ever held in Washington," Roosevelt demanded that Morgan present his evidence. For six hours, Morgan declined to respond. Morgan maintained his silence through two additional meetings, at which point FDR dismissed the chairman, for "contumacy" and the temperamental inability to exercise shared authority.
Morgan was crushed. "He was physically and emotionally exhausted," J. D. Dawson says, "just emotionally cut up. He wasn't good for too much of anything."
The former chairman returned to Yellow Springs, to brood, to rest, to recover. Which he did. In 1939, he consulted in Mexico on an effort to resettle European Jews in that country; the following year, he founded an organization to promote his ideas about the small community.
He wrote a biography of utopian writer Edward Bellamy; a book attempting to prove that Thomas More's Utopia was based on actual reports of the Inca empire; and a practical guide to entrepreneurship, A Business of My Own.
He consulted in Finland on postwar reconstruction; in India as a member of a national Universities Commission; and in Upper Volta on a major hydroelectric plan.
In 1956, he had a call for help from the Seneca Nation of Indians in New York State. The Army Corps of Engineers was planning to dam a river that ran through the heart of their reservation, driving the Senecas off land guaranteed by George Washington himself in a 1794 treaty that was to last "so long as the sun rises and the river runs."
Morgan was typically direct He had never worked with American Indians, had never taken an interest in them and had never heard of the Senecas. While he had no high opinion of the Corps of Engineers, if there should be no other reasonable way to protect Pittsburgh from floods, he thought the Senecas should not oppose the plan. He agreed, however, to look into an alternative plan.
When he looked, he discovered the Conewango Basin, a natural glacial depression that could store far more water at less cost than the Army plan without costing the Senecas their land, provided Morgan could find a route to drain the water to Lake Erie.
At twenty, Morgan had despaired of his frail constitution. At eighty, he walked the periphery of the Conewango: "I tramped on foot through the woods and gullies, following up each hint of a prospect....I located the men who had drilled for water, gas and oil in the area and went over the ground with them personally."
He found what he was looking for: the Conewango could drain into Lake Erie. It would save the Seneca land. It would save the taxpayers $100 million. Morgan drafted his proposal, listed the alternatives and turned the plans over to the Senecas.
And the Corps of Engineers could not have cared less. Having staked out its ground, the Corps was prepared to darn the river and go full-speed nowhere.
Three years of dreary wrangling ensued. Morgan kept at it. His appearance at age eighty-two on the Today Show to argue the case sparked over 1,000 letters, a significant number, but nothing like enough. In the end, Morgan lost; Indians and the environment were not yet causes sufficiently popular to counter the Corps' brilliant bureaucratic sandbagging.
Morgan continued. Through his eighties, he still went out mornings to chop wood barefoot behind his home in Yellow Springs that doubled as his office, still took his long weekly walks in the woods.
He was still at his desk an hour before his staff arrived, typing drafts of the day's correspondence on a venerable typewriter that he attacked with two fingers.
Slowly, he mellowed. His book Search for Purpose retreated from earlier dogmatisms, asserting only that life was an adventure whose purpose was the discovery of the values whereby to live. A grandson once asked him how a student staying with the Morgans was faring. Arthur Morgan replied that the young man seemed uncertain in religious matters. “And you're certain?” his grandson asked. Without missing a beat, Arthur Morgan responded: "I'm certain I'm uncertain."
On other matters he did not budge. When Morgan was ninety, Antioch College proposed a curator for his papers. He asked one question about the nominee: "Is she of good character?" To Morgan, as to the Greeks, character was all.
Character, Morgan believed, was equivalent in the social order to the tensile strength of steel in bridge building. "We may desire to create a bridge of greater span than ever has been built," he wrote. "Yet, if the only steel available is of very low strength, no amount of fine design and no abundance of finance can overcome that limitation."
Increasingly, Morgan was a creature out of time, part sage, part relic, born and formed before the concern for character had yielded to the preoccupation with personality and the obsessions of image. Character was active, formed by, in and for yourself. Personality is what had been inflicted on you, and image that infliction tarted up and trotting off to town.
Image, as a limit, defines that which you can get away with. Morgan doubtless doubted anyone ever got away with anything. He was a water control engineer, prepared to cross the Red Sea dry shod, willing the waters to part. His disappointment was that there were so few to follow; his certainty was that it was he who had to lead.
Arthur Morgan died in 1975 at age ninety-seven. In June of the following year, his ashes and those of Lucy Griscom Morgan, who had died four years before, were re-interred at the edge of Glen Helen, the nature preserve of Antioch College, beneath a granite boulder that did not come from Huffman Dam as the legend would have it, but from a farm outside Yellow Springs. Nonetheless, the Morgan Stone was a mighty boulder, an enduring landmark for a man who had no small intentions.