When Sid Morrison (’54 Hort.) worked as a Washington state legislative page in his teens, he asked for the then governor Monrad Wallgren’s autograph. The signature came back with a piece of advice: “Never get involved in politics.”
The young orchardist ignored that advice. He successfully ran for a Washington state House of Representatives seat in the Yakima area in 1965 to “make sure this relatively rural area had a voice.”
As a state representative and senator, US Congressman, state secretary of transportation, chairman of Energy Northwest’s board of directors, and Central Washington University trustee, Morrison has worked with eight Washington governors in all. And in more than 60 years of public service, he has never lost sight of his rural roots.
A farmer first and last
Morrison’s father, Charles Freeman Morrison, came to Washington from North Dakota in 1902. His mother, Anne Helen (Fornfeist) Morrison (1922 For. Lang. and Lit.), was the first of the family to graduate from college in Pullman, where she lived in Spanish House. All the female student residents were required to speak Spanish in the home.
The couple raised Sid and his two brothers on an orchard near Zillah in the Yakima Valley. They grew peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, and other soft fruits at a time when it was believed the area was too warm to grow apples. The packing shed in which they first lived has been added to and remodeled over the decades, and family members still live in it.
Young Sid helped his “green thumb” father start a tree fruit nursery, learning the basics of budding and grafting. At Washington State College, Morrison was president of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity and vice-chair of the Crimson Circle. He was elected to the Washington State Apple Commission after graduation.
His life as an orchardist was interrupted when he was drafted into the US Army from 1954 to 1956, working as a medical technician in Puerto Rico. “My college sweetheart flew down with her wedding dress under her arm—so that it wouldn’t wrinkle—and we got married at Fort Brooke in 1955,” Morrison remembers. The former Marcella Britton (x’55) was one credit away from graduating from WSC, but the army needed her to teach school, and she never got around to earning that last credit.
Returning to Zillah, Morrison worked his own land, and he and Marcella raised four children: Wally (’78 Ag. Mech.), Mary Anne, Linda (’81 Poli. Sci.), and Doris (’82 Ed.). These were dynamic years of change for the fruit industry, with dwarfing rootstocks and spur-type growth varieties making the nursery business a challenge.
The Morrisons searched successfully for “sport” varieties that did not need such cold winter weather to color, he says. “Those were the days when nurserymen would erect a cyclone fence around a tree or limb that promised to ‘change the world.’ Those new scion varieties, coupled with dwarfing rootstocks to control tree size, truly changed the fruit industry as we knew it.
“We were also aggressively growing grapes but hadn’t been able to produce the fine European wine grapes like cabernet sauvignon,” Morrison says. Through friends at the WSU Extension service in Yakima, he secured an appointment to the National Agricultural Research Advisory Committee and traveled around the country to see how wine grapes were successfully grown.
“We learned that if you grow them where their roots can get into the water table, they keep growing through the winter and freeze and die. They must be grown on higher land.” Later, using models he’d seen in California, he helped wineries like Chateau Ste. Michelle work out contracts with growers to obtain all the grapes they needed.
He remains keenly interested in horticultural topics and water use and lives on part of the family’s original land near Zillah.
A statesman’s career
Morrison’s father was appointed to take the place of a state legislator who was drafted during World War II and then ran for another term.
Morrison says his own move to the state legislature was a natural outgrowth of his activities in the agricultural sector and in the Yakima Rotary Club, where fellow members convinced him to run. “It was just 60-day sessions then; I could come home on the weekend and install pumps or whatever. I didn’t have to give up the farm.” He served the fifteenth district for eight years in the state House, from 1966 to 1974, and six years in the state senate, from 1974 to 1980, during the tenures of Governors Daniel Evans and Dixie Lee Ray.
In his first session with the state House, he was chosen vice-chair of the Labor Committee, “which no other Republican wanted,” he remembers. The older committee chair died, and so Morrison took over, tackling the “ramshackle mess” that was the public employee retirement system. “The police unions and the fire department unions would work on getting their benefits improved on alternate years, leapfrogging over one another. We put them together in one system,” he says.
He lists legislation to allow physician assistants to work in Washington as another major accomplishment, as well as some tweaks to “blue laws” to make it easier for people to buy wine and drink it on winery grounds.
Although Morrison says he “wasn’t a hot-dogger,” the decision to run for the US House of Representatives was a natural progression. In his mid-40s, he beat five-term incumbent Democrat Mike McCormack—“a good friend, and we’ve stayed friends”—as part of the Reagan Landslide of 1980.
In a Washington Post story on “New Faces in the House,” he was described as a “wealthy orchardist, well-known and respected as a tax specialist” who had campaigned on traditional Republican issues: a balanced federal budget, elimination of questionable government programs, and higher defense spending. He was on the Agriculture and Energy and Commerce Committees among others in his six terms, from 1981 to 1993. During those years he was in constant communication with Governors John Spellman and Booth Gardner.
“It was a different political world than anything you hear about now; there was camaraderie among members,” he says. “Some Republicans and more Democrats I considered friends—you’d go to them with your ideas and see if your beliefs were close enough to work out a solution to a problem.” This spirit of finding common ground was particularly strong in the Washington state delegation, he adds.
As a member of the Agriculture Committee, “I made sure I was part of every consideration of wilderness areas. I am pleased with the reasoned, reasonable approach to save the best for wilderness conservation, and replant and reforest the rest.” Laws to help preserve the Elwha River ecosystem, the Columbia Gorge Scenic Area, and the Cedar River watershed are among bills he cosponsored with the rest of the delegation. His position on the Science and Technology Committee was instrumental in getting funds to clean up “the mess made by WWII at Hanford.”
While he and his family were living in Washington, DC, his younger brother and older son ran the farm. In 1992, “maybe a bit burned out,” Morrison returned to the state to run for governor. He lost in the primary to Republican Ken Eikenberry, who was then defeated by Democrat Mike Lowry (’62 Poli. Sci., Gen. Stu.).
A third act in transportation, energy, and education
“Mike Lowry and I were friends through our congressional experience,” Morrison says. “He asked me to stop by his office and tell him what I’d like to do.” He chose to apply for secretary of transportation, then run by an independent commission, and Lowry wrote him a letter of support. He served in the cabinets of Lowry and Governor Gary Locke from 1993 to 2001. He says he was “the only Republican they even let in the door.”
During that period, “It was clear that highways could not continue to provide all the means of transportation,” says Morrison, who was the first chair of Sound Transit, founded in 1993, and was instrumental in the expansion of passenger rail between Bellingham and Oregon. “We built three new jumbo ferries. We got the unions and shipbuilders to make concessions so that they could be built in Seattle and not out of state.”
Retiring from the Department of Transportation, Morrison was appointed to the board of directors of Energy Northwest (formerly the Washington Public Power Supply System, or WPPSS) in 2001. He became chair of the board in 2006 and continued with the public power supply agency for 20 years until 2021. “We had to find out what went wrong with WPPSS and fix things and work on keeping the one nuclear power plant, the Columbia Generating Station in Richland, running.” He worked with Governor Christine Gregoire to get it relicensed.
The consortium of 28 public utility districts “is leading the charge nationally for renewable energy,” Morrison says. His voice brims with enthusiasm when he talks of the “go-get-’em, capable young researchers who are building the first modular nuclear reactors.”
During the same period, Governor Jay Inslee appointed Morrison a trustee on the board of Central Washington University, where he served for 12 years, from 2003 to 2015, mostly as chair. “I enjoyed it; they were wonderful people,” he says. “I got a better feel for the people we were training to be teachers and other professionals, especially commercial pilots because CWU has the only accredited public university degree program in the Pacific Northwest.”
Having left his position at Energy Northwest at age 88, Morrison is officially retired—“except for two or three or four things.” Water issues are still important to him, and he is part of the Yakima Basin Storage Alliance trying to get the US Bureau of Reclamation to finish the Yakima Project and bring a more consistent water supply to the valley.
He is still active in Rotary as his club’s longest-living member. He is chairman of the board of Life Support, a nonprofit raising funds for emergency medical and support and fire protection around Interstate 90 and Kittitas County. And he is a member of the board of Mainstream Republicans, dedicated to support the election of well-qualified and moderate Republicans.
That task has been more difficult in the last decade. “We seem to publicize the negatives and that leads to more polarization,” Morrison says. “But there’s more cooperation going on than the media suggest. When we have people respecting other people for their opinions, we can still make things happen, but you have to be willing to stop fighting and look for areas of cooperation.
“I am not a negative person, and my legislative and congressional years brought some amazing team players into my life. We got results. I am reminded of a quote I got directly from President Ronald Reagan: ‘You will be amazed what you can get done if you don’t care who gets the credit!’”
Top row, from left: One of the 1954 “Big Ten” seniors and a WSC Executive Council member. From the Chinook yearbook, courtesy WSU Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections. Washington state representative (1966–1974) and senator (1974–1980). Photo Vibert Jeffers/Washington State Archives. US representative (1981–1993). Courtesy C-SPAN Bottom row, from left: WSDOT secretary (1993–2001). Courtesy Inside Olympia. Since “retirement,” Morrison has been a board treasurer for State Fair Park in Yakima (photo courtesy Central Washington State Fair), a trustee at Central Washington University (photo courtesy CWU), and executive board chairman for Energy Northwest (not pictured)
A brief history of the Spanish House at Washington State College