It was in the Grove at Ole Miss when two unsuspecting college girls bumped into each other and quickly realized they both had on the same orange and white dress. The moment unfolded before Bill Morris’ eyes and with his camera in hand he captured it perfectly.

This photo is one of 300 photographs in Morris’ debut book “Ole Miss at Oxford: A Part of Our Heart and Soul.” In his book, Morris paints a picture of the good times in Oxford through his photos of people picnicking in the Grove, hanging out in the Square, or enjoying football games. His photos also include some historical buildings and beautiful scenery in Oxford.

A native Jacksonian and Ole Miss graduate, Morris is the founder and president of The William Morris Group P.A., an insurance and marketing firm.

Morris has always had a creative and artistic side to him that he shared with his wife, Camille. But his love of photography, however, began when his daughters, Camille and Kathryn, were born.

“I began photographing when my children were young and it grew as they got older and we would go to different venues,” he said. “Somewhere in the late 1980s, I bought some better equipment and began to photograph around Oxford.”

Morris was captivated by the beauty of the little town itself and of the people.

“As time went by, I began to photograph in the Grove and in various venues downtown, various people and places around Oxford.”

Morris said although he is not a professional photographer, he feels he was blessed with an eye for those things unique and also some things ephemeral.

“My eyes were open to people and places that I had some sense of the temporary nature of the journey through this part of time,” he said. “I photographed a number of people whose photo was the last ever taken of them.”

In the book, Morris recalls that he always has a camera in his hands and he sees things that might elude him otherwise.

He says in the preface, “With the knowledge that these particular moments will not come back again, they become cherished at the very time they are unfolding. By understanding this, a different and more complete perspective is revealed. Sometimes Camille or the girls would say, ‘No let’s not stop and take a picture right now,’ and I would reply, ‘If not now, when?’”

Although Morris always had his camera in tow at Oxford, he didn’t think about a book until the late 90s thanks to the support of literary great Willie Morris.

“I was a very big fan of Willie Morris and we became pretty good friends over a period of time,” Morris said. In November 1998, Morris had dinner with Willie and wife JoAnne at the Mayflower Cafe. “We discussed a number of things and talked about my photographs of Oxford,” he said. “One of the things he said to me was, ‘Bill, we ought to do a coffee table book.’”

Morris was honored but first Willie had two books he had to finish. Sadly, Willie Morris died the following August, but the encouragement Bill received from him never left.

During Eli Manning’s years at Ole Miss, Morris took a great number of photographs of him and the team. “Those were some special days,” Morris said. “I’m in the Rebel Club East and I’m on the first row, so I’m practically on the field but up high. I really got a lot of good shots of Eli.”

Morris would run into Archie and Olivia Manning at City Grocery Restaurant frequently. “I told them I wanted to do a photo album,” he said. “But as time went by, it didn’t get done and every time I’d see them I’d get embarrassed that I hadn’t done that.” But when Eli Manning was to open the Eli Manning Children’s Clinics at the Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children, Morris vowed to get the photo album done.

“A young lady helped me get this together and we sent it to a company that would do a photo album,” Morris said. “I got just a few copies and I presented it to them after he had cut the ribbon on the children’s clinic addition.”

The Mannings were appreciative, but according to Morris, when he showed it to some of the people at Lemuria Bookstore, they told him they had never seen a book quite like this about Oxford. “They told me if I were to do a book about Oxford and Ole Miss, they thought it would sell for a long time,” he said. “I talked to someone at University Press and we put this together and created a journey through these photographs.”

Three hundred photos were then picked from thousands Morris has taken throughout the years. Morris has many favorite photos in the book and finds sharing them to be a great joy.

He took a photo of the Smittys one morning at Smitty’s Café, a restaurant that was once located just off the Square (now the 208 Café). “It used to be a fabulous place for breakfast downtown,” Morris said. “I remember sitting in there and photographing Smitty one Saturday morning. His wife told me later that that was the last photograph taken of him.”

Morris said the reception of the book has far exceeded all of his expectations.

“The comments I have received have been very humbling,” he said. “I’m deeply thankful I could do this book for those people that love this area and those that might not be familiar and that want to learn about Oxford and Ole Miss.” Morris said he even has had positive comments from people who didn’t go to Ole Miss. “Regardless of where you go to school, this book is for all of us,” he said.

Northsider Nancy Chamblee, who is featured in the book with husband Rodney, told Morris she loved the book and it would be something that she would cherish for a long time. She said she felt so flattered to be in the book and was also appreciative of the pictures of the Downtown Inn. “I truly enjoyed every picture in the book,” she said.

Will Lewis, owner of J.E. Neilson Co. in Oxford, called the book a real tour de force, and Gayle Poole said, “One only has to melt into each photo to sense the mood altering effect of the Grove.”

Morris said he was most enchanted by the photo of the girls who were dressed alike on page 80 and he found out only a few weeks ago that the girls didn’t even know each other. “I didn’t know either one of them, I just took the photo,” he said. “I was headed up to Square Books the weekend of the Tennessee game and my signing was to start at 6 p.m. I walked back outside before the signing started and there was a woman who came running up to me and said, ‘You were the photographer who took a photo of my daughter.’” Morris was elated to meet one of the girls in the photo.

Morris said he has also been extremely happy to see people who he has not seen in years and close friends of his buying the book. “I can’t tell you what a feeling that is,” he said. “Only an artist will know what I am talking about. To use one of Willie Morris’ words, ‘It is an ineffable feeling.’”

Morris has no intention of retiring from his work, but does plan to write more books in the future. “I enjoy enhancing my life by the other talents that have been given to me in the artistic field.”

 

Copyright, The Northside Sun

© 2019 by William Morris.