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Weekly 150: E. Ray Morris (Parts I and II)

McKenzie’s Benevolent Son

by Jason Martin
Posted 8/25/20

Part I

In 1937, Elwood Ray Morris was born on the family farm located along Morris Cemetery Road in Wildersville, Tennessee. He was the middle child of Navis and Elwood Morris, Jack was 5 years …

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Weekly 150: E. Ray Morris (Parts I and II)

McKenzie’s Benevolent Son

Posted

Part I

In 1937, Elwood Ray Morris was born on the family farm located along Morris Cemetery Road in Wildersville, Tennessee. He was the middle child of Navis and Elwood Morris, Jack was 5 years older and little brother Joe (future Mayor of McKenzie) was 3 years younger.

The Morris family left “The Old Place” when Ray was three years old. Their previous home had no plumbing or electricity. In Ray’s autobiography, he said, “Life was simple, but we owned our land and even had a sharecropper to help us. My dad was a good farmer and the land supported our family, and I think dad paid his sisters a return on their investment since they were part owners.”

The new home located in Yuma was like “living uptown.” The house was wired with electricity, the road was gravel and the schoolhouse was just up the hill, but they still lacked plumbing.

In 1945, the Morrises were on the move. They settled in McKenzie because it provided proper schooling to the three boys. Working the 100-acre farm in McKenzie led Elwood to retire his team of mules and purchase the family’s first tractor. After a few years of good returns, the Morris farm expanded in acreage.

Ray made extra money delivering The Memphis Press-Scimitar. He kept the route for several years, but as he grew older and became interested in sports there was very little time available for work away from home.

“I got older and wanted to play sports...football, baseball and basketball. There was little time to do that, especially during the growing and harvesting season. Even In the winter months, I was expected to milk one or two cows by hand each morning before going to school. School was good to me. I always made good grades, but I had to bring books home, while Joe never did and his grades were just as good as mine.”

During his junior and senior years, Ray was given permission from his mother to play football. At 135 pounds, he played halfback and fullback. Ray nearly missed the season opener his senior year after a car accident.

He wrote, “Lewis Holmes (son of Dr. James Holmes) came by our school driving his father’s new Ford...He asked several of us if we wanted to go for a ride, so Jerry Atkins, Charlene Pennick (Jones), Nell Crawford, Jenice Brannon and myself piled in the car, and off we went. Lewis took us on a gravel road just outside of town and since he was driving too fast, he was unable to negotiate one of the shape curves at the top of the hill. The car turned over and landed in a ditch. Nobody was hurt, but Jerry Atkins had a charley horse in one of his legs.”

After high school, he was “tired of school” and took a job at the pajama factory and joined the National Guard expecting a two-week paid vacation. Making minimum wage at the factory and learning Fort Stewart, Georgia was no one’s idea of a vacation spot, Ray began to rethink education.

In September 1955, Ray was on the campus of Bethel College and working part-time for Regal Baker. Once on campus, he was advised to take more than just the basic easy subjects. The decisions to start with a tougher curriculum lead Ray towards a career path.

“Several of my classmates were pre-engineering and pre-med students, who were on the GI Bill. They planned to transfer to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville for their last two years. I became friends with them and what they were doing seemed to fit my aptitude, so I decided to do the same, except I felt I should transfer as a sophomore.”

Ray left Bethel College for Tennessee Tech instead of UT Knoxville, but first, he required a stop in South Carolina by way of Nashville to work as a door-to-door bible salesman. With $350 to his name, he needed more money in order to pay for his tuition at Tech.

Charlie Cox of McKenzie had worked for Southwestern Publishing Company as a bible salesman and offered Ray the chance to work for the company in Manning, South Carolina. After spending $300 on a rusty 1950 Ford, Ray was on his way. By the end of summer, he saved $1,500, enough for his first year of engineering school.

His time at Tennessee Tech was challenging. With dormitories full, he roomed off-campus near the railroad tracks on Dixie Avenue. His roommates were Jackie Hall and James McDonald. Missing certain courses from Bethel forced Ray into becoming a dedicated student.

“Bethel didn’t offer elementary surveying or engineering drafting, both of which were prerequisites for several of my needed classes as a sophomore engineering student. In order to graduate on time, it forced me to take a double load of courses...I was really focused for three years at Tech and graduated in August 1959. I took 21-quarter hours each quarter as a senior. My grades suffered, but I managed to graduate.”

With a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering, “Standby-Reserve” status from the military and out of money, Ray was off to Memphis to find gainful employment. He hitchhiked his way to the Mississippi River port city where he found a room for $1 per night on Evergreen Street. From there he walked the streets of Memphis armed with the Yellow Pages going from business to business hoping to find an offer of employment.

On his second day of knocking on doors and interviewing, he entered into the S.S. Kenworthy & Associates, Structural Engineers office. With confidence in his abilities, Ray impressed Mr. Kenworthy who offered him a job. From there the sky was the limit for Ray Morris.

In next week’s article, Ray furthers his career with a move to Atlanta but doesn’t forget his roots in McKenzie.

Part II

In December 1962, Ray Morris was 25 years old and was on his way to Atlanta. With $1,300 to his name and still owing his father $750, he began working for Eastern Engineering Company under Charlie Long.

Eastern’s business was to design paper mills from concept to completion of construction. Morris lasted a year with the company before looking for a change. A call to Tom McCord changed his life.

Morris was hired as the company’s project manager. With Tom McCord Construction, he was responsible for the construction of service stations. A three-year span of successful projects led to move to the larger construction firm of McDonough Construction.

After one year, Ray was ready for a change. He quickly learned he enjoyed the smaller style projects of McCord Construction. With a wife and family, he was looking for greater opportunities with a larger cash flow.

The summer of 1967 brought two changes to Ray. On the same day, he asked Linda Mayer to marry him and he became business partners with Felix Cochran. The plan for the new company was the construction of apartments.

The initial idea brought by Felix to Ray was not well received. Morris wrote, “The scum of the industry builds stick frame apartments, and I didn’t want any part of it.” After promises of ownership and large potential profits, Ray became more interested.

He was persuaded to work for a year as job superintendent and “hated every minute of it.” After the initial year, Felix was able to present their combined talents and potential as they began their visit apartment development as Venture Construction Company near Stone Mountain, Georgia.

Hard work and persistence led to Venture Construction landing two additional construction jobs along with the initial Tahoe apartments near Stone Mountain. As 1969 drew to a close, Ray and Linda purchased their first home.

From 1972 to 1975, Venture Construction began growing as Ray and Felix made strategic hires. Then there were a series of conversations with Burger King which led to a long-lasting relationship.

Success begot more success for Ray, Felix and Venture. Next to come knocking was McDonald’s and then Hardee’s. The growth and expansion of McDonald’s led Venture to open a branch office near Raleigh, North Carolina in 1977. In that year, Venture’s construction volume was approximately $7 million, by 1979 the volume was up to nearly $14 million. This led the group to open a branch in Tampa, Florida.

The sky seemed to be the limit as volume grew exponentially. 1981 saw it at $19 million, 1984 at $51 million and by 2007 the volume was measured at $223 million.

Ray stated in his autobiography he never envisioned himself as a philanthropist, but the sudden and untimely death of his younger brother Joe brought him down the path of benevolence. Bill Odom, President of Bethel College, called Ray to inform him of the institution’s decision to name the new men’s dormitory after his late brother. In 1987, Morris Hall was constructed and Ray was asked to join the college’s board of trustees.

“At the risk of offending some of my friends who may think that philanthropy would always be kept anonymous, I can say that I am proud of my contribution to the construction of Prosser Hall. Tennessee Tech has also been a very important part of my career.”

In recent years, Ray and his wife, Linda, have gifted real estate to the city of McKenzie and McKenzie Industrial Board and have been major contributors to Bethel University. The Ray and Linda Morris Science Building on the campus of Bethel is named in Morris’ honor.

The life of Ray Morris is one based on family, business and friendship. Ray and Linda were married on November 18, 1967, in an ornate European style log cabin where he along with Felix Cochran and Dante Stephensen were living at the time. Their marriage brought two children, Courtney and Stephanie. Later the Morrises were blessed with grandchildren.

Venture Construction has had over 50 years of success with Ray currently serving as the company president. At one point, Ray had wanted an exit strategy when he reached 65. “We are still talking about it and nothing specific has been done, except that we have had several meetings and attended a few seminars.”

Now in his 80s, only time will tell what future successes lay in store for Ray Morris and Venture Construction.

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