| By Billy Davis
When Tractor Supply manager A.R. Robinson was undecided about moving from Florida to Batesville to manage a new store, a quiet-spoken Realtor named Leonard Morris convinced him to make the move to the Magnolia State.
Last summer, Robinson and his wife, Yvonne, were preparing to travel back to Florida after scouting the Panola County area when they visited Morris in his Batesville office. A postal carrier who met the couple had suggested they visit with Morris.
"We were getting ready to leave and I said, ‘Let’s go find this guy,’ " Robinson recalled. "We discovered this quiet-spoken man in his office. He spent two hours talking to us."
People who knew Leonard Morris probably aren’t surprised to hear he spent two hours talking with husband-and-wife strangers, or that he spent that time convincing them to make a new home in Panola County.
Morris, 59, died Friday evening, January 12, at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.
Morris was listed in critical condition since January 4 when he developed complications during surgery to remove a tumor from a kidney. His condition had improved and was upgraded to serious by
Funeral services for Morris will be held today at 2:30 p.m. in the auditorium at Batesville Junior High School. Burial will be at Concord Cemetery.
Visitation for Morris was held yesterday at Concord Missionary Baptist Church, where he served as chairman of the deacon ministry. A memorial service was held there at 6:30.
Morris was born and raised in the Concord community, located along Curtis Road in west Panola County. He raised daughters Lenora and Lillian with his wife, Belinda, in the same community in which he was born.
At the time of his death, Morris had been serving as a Mississippi state representative for House District 11, which includes Panola and Tate counties. He won office in 1993 and had run unopposed ever since.
In the state legislature, the District 11 representative served as chairman of the House Medicaid Committee, a position that gave him authority to push for cost-cutting Medicaid reform.
Known in Panola County for his support of economic development, Morris urged his fellow legislators last year at this time to create a state fund that allows communities to apply for monies to upgrade their industrial sites.
Morris’ political career began when he served as a school trustee for the South Panola School District. He was working as relocation officer for the Batesville Housing Authority in 1978 when the school board election broke down largely along racial lines. Morris was elected as the first South Panola black trustee by a margin of 161 votes.
If racial problems arose from that win, friends who knew Morris said he showed no ill will toward others.
"He didn’t keep a chip on his shoulder," recalled childhood friend Lygunnah Bean, who grew up with Morris across McIvor Creek in the adjoining Macedonia community.
Bean was later elected to the school board, where he now serves as president of the board. He followed Morris as the second black elected trustee and over the years leaned on his friend for advice about politics and people.
"Leonard was community minded," Bean said. "Watching him meet people and listen to them and help them, I saw that he really believed that he represented all people."
In Panola County and across the state, Morris was also known for a low-key style that helped him win and keep friends regardless of race, background or political persuasion.
"We may have disagreed over issues but we never had a cross word or raised our voice," said state Rep. Warner McBride of Batesville. "When we rode together, we started out talking politics but we moved into talking about our families and our churches."
Tommy Wren, who served as assistant school district superintendent while Morris served on the school board, recalled that Morris would put aside any disagreements if a board vote didn’t fall in his favor.
"I don’t know that Leonard Morris ever came across anybody that he couldn’t work with," Wren said. "He was a gentleman in all cases."
"One thing Leonard needs to be remembered for is that he knew how to cross the aisle," Bean said. "He knew how to get along with blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats.
"Some people shunned him for that, thinking he was playing the lines, but he believed in order for business to be done, you’ve got to cross the aisle," Bean continued. "I remember that once I went with him to a Republican fund-raiser. He believed he should be there."
In a January 13 Clarion-Ledger story announcing Morris’ passing, Gulf Coast legislator John Read said colleagues in the House would have voted Morris as their "most-loved member." Read was choking back tears as he talked.