Political apathy hung over Brian Charette in 1992, when he moved to Jackson Hole as a 20-year-old ski bum. He’d come of age as the Gulf War raged, and he “didn’t want to be involved with any system.”
Then, one day in front of the old log Teton County Library, he met Capt. Bob Morris.
Already familiar with the man, Charette recognized the friendly face from around town and the baritone voice from the radio. But when Morris flagged him down to explain why it was imperative he register to vote, his indifference faltered. The two walked together down the block to the courthouse and Morris stood beside him as he filled out the paperwork.
Nearly three decades have passed since that day, and Charette hadn’t thought of it in years. But when he learned last week of Bob’s death, the image of the tall man with the floppy hat and the calm smile returned, vivid as ever.
“You can’t not remember the guy, it’s as simple as that,” Charette said. “He stuck in many people’s memories.”
In the half century he inhabited the valley, Morris left a long trail of such stories. Collectively, his encounters with the people of Jackson Hole left an impression of a magnitude that few — perhaps none — have matched. (See the News&Guide editorial board’s salute on page 4A and his friend Jim Stanford’s tribute on page 12B.)
Morris died Jan. 14 at Legacy Lodge. He was 87. The news sparked reminiscing by hundreds of longtime locals, recounting the times they picked him up hitchhiking on the Village Road, served him piping hot pea soup at The Bunnery, or spotted him pulling his own personal coat hanger, napkin and mug from his iconic, political-stickered briefcase.
At first glance he could have been just an affable oddball. But through the eccentric exterior shone a noble vision, clear to all who made the effort to see it. As his old friend Jonathan Schechter put it, Morris was “an acquired taste,” but “it’s not like he was some crazy guy standing next to the minimart.”
Each of his quirks served a higher purpose, an ideal — the kind the average person endorses but doesn’t practice. Morris, however, wasn’t average.
He never owned a car after 1956. He scrupulously salvaged recycled bits of paper. He built a passive solar home in Teton Village, complete with composting toilets. He tipped exclusively in $2 bills and Susan B. Anthony dollars, which he deemed less wasteful than the $1 bill.
Perhaps above all, he was an unabashed champion for political involvement, and he spent his days urging the people around him to rise and be heard — to vote, “for their sake, not mine.”
“He had a brighter, purer moral compass than anybody I’ve ever known,” Schechter said. “His sense of self, and his courage to act on those convictions, even though it made him somewhat of an outcast in the eyes of some, was something that most of us can only begin to imagine.”
The moral architecture of his life runs deeper still, accounting even for his arrival in Wyoming in 1970.
After years of service in the Marine Corps — where he earned the title he went by thereafter — Morris was discharged in 1967 before he would have been deployed to Vietnam. A staunch critic of U.S. intervention there, he organized his world around ending the war, and that meant moving to the state where each vote goes farthest.
“It was the place in America where he could make the strongest difference,” Schechter said.
Morris flater ounded KMTN, Jackson’s first FM radio station, which for decades played his ubiquitous ads advocating decriminalization of marijuana — to “kill the black market” — affordable housing, and energy efficiency, among other forward-thinking ideas.
This from a man classically educated in history, Greek and Latin at the Groton School and Yale University. Sometimes, his friend Jim Stanford said, “I’d be having a conversation with him, just shooting the sh-t, and he’d pause to give me a history lesson or explain the etymology of a Latin word.
“Captain Bob was at once an anachronism and ahead of his time,” said Stanford, now a town councilor, who wrote his obituary. When Stanford was a DJ at KMTN in the early 1990s, he said, he would sometimes play Morris’ ads even when they weren’t scheduled.
“He worked so hard for these ideals,” Stanford said, “and we’re finally coming around to embrace them.”
For years Morris was a perennial candidate, running as a Republican in every election between 1986 and 2010. He opposed Dick Cheney for Wyoming’s sole U.S. House seat three times, before switching focus to the Board of County Commissioners and the state Legislature.
Though he never won (except the 2000 Republican primary), he influenced many of the community leaders in the generations that followed him, not to mention the community at large. Morris referred to himself as an “Eisenhower Republican” — fiscally conservative but moderate or progressive on social issues. Now some refer to themselves as “Bob Morris Republicans.”
His will to engage ski bums and other youngsters in the political process knew no bounds. Joe Larrow first met Morris as a teenager spending summers in Teton Village in the 1970s, and what did the tireless civic gadfly talk about with people of such a pre-political age?
“Voting,” Larrow said. “I’d keep telling him I wasn’t old enough to vote.”
Years later Larrow, then a ski patroller at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, became seriously ill, and Morris put him up rent-free while he recuperated. He opened his home to plenty of ski bums over the years, Larrow said.
Even as Morris wore his clothes to rags, his generosity found outlets in donations to children’s scholarship funds, half-priced condo sales to the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust, and support of other local nonprofits.
“He helped a lot of people out,” Larrow said. “I think he just kind of recognized places of need and got involved.”
In turn, the community embraced him, in all his unconventional singularity. People enjoyed the sight of him on his custom bicycle, rain or shine. Anyone working the Mangy Moose salad bar knew to save him the celery stalks that would otherwise go to waste each night.
And, of course, untold drivers shuttled him to and from Teton Village over the years, happy to accept his conversation and $2 bills (plus the occasional apple or orange) as payment. The lucky ones got a spiel on why they shouldn’t be driving in the first place.
Ask any resident who’s been here more than a few years, and odds are they have a Capt. Bob story. Schechter, now a town councilor, who moved to Jackson after Morris hired him as public affairs director for KMTN in the 1980s, called Morris a “bottomless well of anecdotes” — unforgettable and without equal.
“We will never see anything like him again,” Schechter said.
To many, Morris symbolized a fast-fading era in Jackson Hole — an era of larger-than-life individualists, of principled mavericks who lived on their own terms and spurred others to do the same. To many, Morris was a legend.
“It’s too bad,” Charette said, “that there aren’t more Capt. Bobs in this world.”