Jim Morgan with River Downs spire behind him. JOHN ENGELHARDT/CONTRIBUTED
Photo: columnit
Photo: columnit

Archdeacon: Remembering ‘a larger than life character‘

They had come up to Dayton from Leslie County in Eastern Kentucky with little more than the clothes on their backs.

The two-room log cabin their daddy had built back in a hollow some seven miles south of Hyden – a home that had no electricity, no running water and access by mule, not motor car – had burned down after sparks had jumped from a wood fire.

“I’d polished all the kids shoes and set them on our big front porch,” the late Mae Morgan, who’d been down at the creek washing when the fire started, once told me. “I remember seeing them all lined up in the flames.”

So when Jim, the oldest of the seven Morgan children, won All City honors as a sophomore starter on the powerful 1950-51 Stivers High School basketball team, Mae and her husband William were especially proud.

“None of us had a suit or a tie or anything, but I remember Daddy went down and bought him a suit from “Money Back” Harris,” said Sam Morgan, who’s three years younger than Jim. “It was a place where you could pay so much a week until you paid it off. That way Jim could go to the banquet and look good in the picture.”

This afternoon Jim Morgan again will be all decked out – either in a suit or a nice sport coat, Sam wasn’t sure – for his 1 to 4 p.m. visitation at Tobias Funeral Home on Far Hills.

Morgan died in his sleep last Sunday morning. He was 85 and leaves two children – Jay and Peggy – and four grand and great grandchildren.

After today’s and Monday morning’s (11 a.m. to noon) viewings, there will be a service at the funeral home. Burial will follow at Deerfield Cemetery in South Lebanon.

Between this final appearance and his initial coming out party in 1951 a lot of things happened in Jim Morgan’s life.

Following a celebrated, Hall of Fame career at Stivers, he had even more hardcourt fame at the University of Louisville, where, as a 6-foot-1 guard, he scored 1,105 career points, is enshrined in the school’s athletics hall of fame and had his No 12 jersey retired.

After that he made the NBA’s Syracuse Nationals team, was a successful basketball coach at Stebbins High and then became Ohio’s preeminent thoroughbred trainer.

And through it all one thing never changed.

With Jim Morgan, there was never any worry about wanting your money back. He always gave you more than your money’s worth.

“He was kind of a larger than life character,” said John Engelhardt, the University of Dayton grad who lives in Kettering and is the executive director of the Ohio Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners. “It wasn’t just his accomplishments in basketball and racing, but his realm of intelligence in so many things.

“You meet a lot of guys on the backside over the years and pretty much all they know is horses. Jim knew so much about the world, it was amazing. You could tell he was extremely well read. You could bring up any subject and he’d nail it.”

Engelhardt, who also hosts a weekly radio show at WinningPonies.com, knew Morgan best from the track:

“When people think of a horseman from the national perspective they might think of D. Wayne Lukas, he’s kind of the dean of the sport. But in the Midwest that guy was Jim Morgan. He rubbed shoulders with track presidents and grooms and they all respected him.”

Yet, for all he had done, Morgan never wore his accomplishments on his sleeve,

Don Donoher, the legendary Dayton Flyers coach, was a friend of Morgan’s. They’d known each other for nearly seven decades.

“He never talked about himself,” Donoher said. “The two things he most wanted to talk about were his roots in Kentucky and Stivers High.”

Paul Lewis is chairman of the Stivers Athletic Hall of Fame committee and he and Jim, who was one of the committee members, had nearly completed plans for the 2019 enshrinement ceremony next Sunday.

“There’s NEVER been a better ambassador for Stivers than Jim,” Lewis said.

In fact, the Friday night before he died he went with Lewis to the Stivers High night put on by the Varsity Club at Taste restaurant in Trotwood.

Bill Hosket – the Belmont High and Ohio State star who won an NBA title with the New York Knicks – was there, too. His dad, Bill Sr., a Stivers grad, was being honored and he said Jim got up and spoke about how much the school meant to him.

Hosket, who grew up next to the Morgans in East Dayton, wrote a letter to the family this past week. He told about the things he admired in Jim, including how he “very much was his own man.”

Two examples of that ended up redirecting his basketball career.

Sam said although the Dayton Flyers recruited Jim and he “really wanted to go there,” UD coach Tom Blackburn would only offer him a one-year scholarship. Louisville promised him four years.

Jim’s independence showed again when Syracuse made him the 15th overall pick in the 1957 NBA draft. He made the team, but when was offered just over $5,000, he quietly packed up and headed home to take a job as a history teacher and basketball coach at Stebbins.

Jim Morgan at Louisville. Morgan became an 1,105-point scorer. Team beat UD 5 of 6 times including in 1956 NIT championship game. He s in schools hall of fame and his No. 12 is retired. CONTRIBUTeD PHOTO
Photo: columnit

When he left, the Nationals – who later became the Philadelphia 76ers — called back Hal Greer whom they had cut.

“I will never forget that once as a member of the New York Knicks, we played a game in Philadelphia against the 76ers,” Hosket wrote. “They stopped the game when future Hall of Famer Hal Greer scored his 20,000th point.

“Hal mentioned after the game that the milestone would not have happened if a fellow rookie named Jim Morgan, a great player from Louisville, hadn’t decided that professional basketball was not for him and went home.

“That’s right, Jim was playing ahead of Hal Greer But he elected, as usual, to go his own direction.”

Lessons of home

Donoher remembered a trip he once took with Morgan:

“He picked me up at 5 in the morning. We went down I-75 and then cut over to Hyden. We went all through his part of Eastern Kentucky, through Hazard and a lot of other places (including Wendover, the tiny settlement where the Morgan cabin had stood). I got the history of the whole area.

“Jim loved it there.”

The lessons of home came with the family when they moved in stages to Dayton in the early 1940s. Mae and William and sons Mickey and Tommy (now known as Baldy) came first by Greyhound bus.

“I remember we were sitting there on that bus waiting to leave Hyden,” Mae told me. “We had nothing but a poke (sack). We’d lost everything in the fire. And that’s when Will Hoskins, a friend of ours who was a lawyer, knocked on the window.

“He said, ‘When you get to Dayton, do the right thing and don’t go to bars and you’ll make it. You’re a good family and that’ll get you through.’ He said if we did that he’d put our name in the Thousandsticks News, the little newspaper there.”

Once in Dayton, William instilled the work ethic with his long hours at the Delco plant and Mae set the moral compass for the kids.

“I told them never to lie to me. Well, one time Jim and another boy got into something and I brought ‘em in, but the other little boy denied everything. Finally, Jim tells him, ‘You might as well ‘fess up. She can see a spot in your eye that tells when you’re telling the truth.’”

The thought made her laugh: “I had ‘em convinced.”

All the kids – Jim, Sam, Mickey, Baldy, Sally Brenda and Betty – graduated from high school and went to college.

Baldy spoke for his brothers and sisters when he said: “Jim was my big brother and I looked up to him.”

While at Louisville, Jim helped lead the Cardinals to five victories in six games against the Dayton Flyers, including in the 1956 NIT championship game.

Dayton great Henry Finkel is a good friend of Baldy’s.

Stivers teammates (from left) Gene Millard, who went to Ohio State, and Jim Morgan who went to Louisville. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: columnit

“Denny Papp was always with ‘em, too,” Donoher recalled. “I just talked to Finkel and he told me how they’d play 2-on-2 games and he’d end up having to guard Jim. And even though he was 7 feet tall, he couldn’t stop him. Jim had that quick first step and Finkel said he’d just drive past him or pull up and shoot.”

As a coach he was nearly as successful, going 109-57 in eight seasons at Stebbins.

In 2013, he was enshrined in the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame and back in the 1990s he was nominated for the National Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga.

He was introduced to the sport in 1953.

“My sister just found a 1953 letter from a Louisville assistant coach to Jim,” Mickey said. “He said, ‘Jim, I got a job for you working at the (Kentucky) Derby on Friday and Saturday. You’ll need to come down Thursday to get fitted for a uniform.’”

Jim would work as an usher at Churchill Downs and he was mesmerized.

“Up to then the only thing I’d seen were a few mules and those mine ponies they used to pull the coal out of the side of the mountains,” he once told me.

“Churchill Downs was another world for me. I couldn’t get over the beauty and pageantry. And the excitement of the race hooked me. That’s when Dark Star upset Native Dancer.”

After college Morgan said he began to hang around George Smith: “We’d been at Stivers together and he and George Zimmerman had a horse called Pineapple. That got me around the game and I started going to tracks like Monmouth Park in New Jersey and Arlington Park in Chicago and down to Miami.”

Morgan would end Ohio’s winningest stakes trainer. Six times he trained Ohio’s Horse of the Year. In his career he won over 2,000 races and $20 million in purse money.

Along with success, Morgan was known for his sentimentality. He named many of his horses after key people and places in his life. He had Skip LaRue (his Stivers coach), Peck Hickman (Louisville coach), Bill Monroe (famed bluegrass singer) and, in a nod to home, Wendover and Rose of Wendover.

The thing that most impressed Engelhardt came when he visited Morgan’s barn.

“When you went back to Jim’s shedrow, you saw people who’d been working for him for decades. That loyalty says something about him. He treated his workers well.”

That point will be made again on Monday.

Jim will be buried in the family plot alongside his parents and Sam’s son and James Williams, a black World War II veteran from Louisiana, who had worked as a groom for Jim and then came and worked at the farm.

“He had played in the Negro Leagues and he and Jim were friends,” Sam said. “Now they’ll be buried by each other.”

Love of horses

Mickey and Baldy joined Sam at his home on Nutt Road the other evening to talk about the path Jim forged ahead of them.

Sam has partnered with Ernie Green, the former Cleveland Browns fullback, to form EG Industries, an auto parts and medical supply business that has some 15 factories throughout the United States, the Dominican Republic and Canada.

Mickey, also a hoops standout at Stivers, went to Ohio State, transferred to Morehead State and became the basketball coach and athletics director at Fairmont High School. Baldy played football at Belmont and then went to Morehead, too.

I asked them if Jim’s deepest love was with basketball or horses and after a few seconds Mickey ventured: “I’d say horses, I mean he quit coaching to go to the track.”

Again, it was Jim being his own man.

He once recounted how he’d told his wife Barbara to hang onto their $4,500 in life savings and the their car and he was heading to Florida Downs to become a hot walker:

“Some people called that brave, a lot more probably called it crazy, but I had to do it. In coaching it seemed like the ceiling was right above my head. I wasn’t going to go much farther. But in racing the whole world was open to me, And I realized if you do a good job with the horse, the owner will give you a free hand. I could be my own boss.”

In 1993 he had a serious heart attack and he said a doctor suggested he retire:

“He just didn’t understand. How can a guy think of retiring when he looks out in the pasture and sees a yearling running around full of promise?”

Morgan saddled a lot of promise in his career, including some horses for the late Joe Kiss, the owner of the Hickory Bar-B-Q on Brown Street

On a back wall of the restaurant are some of the Winner’s Circle photos of their efforts. One shows the horse Grand Action that Jim trained for Kiss and a partner.

“It won the Ohio Millionaire Stakes at Thistledown,” Margo Fisher, Joe’s daughter and the co-owner of the restaurant once told me.

“With that race there was a contest tied to the Ohio lottery and a man named Omar Watts, a Cherokee Indian chief, won $1 million.”

Through the luck of the draw Watts — who made $113 a week as a night watchman — had been paired with Grand Action.

“He was poor and had had three heart attacks in four years and two of his kids lived in foster care,” Margo explained. “With Grand Action he became the first $1 million lottery winner and he was able to get his children back home.

“How about that!?”

But then that’s how it was with Jim Morgan.

You always got more than your money’s worth.

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