This story about a real hero is rather personal. I knew the subject. He was a terrific friend I’ll never forget.
How is it that we recognize someone as “great?” Is it by how often his or her name appears in the newspapers? Is it by how much he gives away, or by how many public offices she’s held, or by how many degrees he lists after his name?
Greatness isn’t any of those things. It’s something that springs from character, the critical, self-determined stuff that defines a person. A great man or woman is one who does great things from the heart and doesn’t care if it makes the papers. Giving money to worthy causes is a noble thing, but having the wisdom and the drive to do what it takes to earn it in the first place is what’s really great.
A person can become great in public office, but America is not a country whose strength and vitality come from government. As Ronald Reagan said, “This is a country that has a government, not the other way around.” And having a collection of degrees after your name doesn’t say anything about what you’ve done to put them to good use.
“The achievement of a man,” Booker T. Washington once said, “is measured not by where he starts out in life, nor by where he ends up, but by the distance he travels in between.” This is why Norval K. Morey, “Nub” to those of us who knew him, was a great man, the quintessence of the American Dream.
Norval’s start in life was as humble as humble gets. So was his formal education, which ended with the sixth grade. Even that overstates it. Perhaps the most truant kid in the public schools of Isabella County, Michigan, Norval really didn’t learn much from a teacher after the fourth grade. Half a century later, he was awarded an honorary degree from Harvard after delivering a speech there on environmental harvesting.
Biographer Rich Donnell explains that the Great Depression was Norval’s “ticket out of the seventh grade.” He loved relating the story about how, after a couple of days in his seventh grade class, his teacher told him he was smarter than she was, so he didn’t need to come back. So he quit. He spent the first half of the 1930s working the family farm, cutting and hauling wood, and taking on every odd job he could find. He then moved to Idaho to work as a logger near Lewiston. Returning to Michigan at the start of World War II, he labored in defense plants in Detroit until the army drafted him in 1942. He faced danger head-on as a combat squad leader in northern Italy. Back in his home state after the war, he became a sawmill operator. Wood was his passion and his career for the next four decades.
In 1957, at the age of 37, Norval took a big chance. He designed a portable device to strip bark from pulp wood and then launched the Morbark Debarker Company in the tiny village of Winn, Michigan. The total payroll: two people, and they made only one product.
When he died 40 years later in 1997, head of the company to the last, Morbark was a 1.5 million square foot manufacturing complex with nearly 500 employees producing hundreds of heavy equipment designs for sale around the world. The company builds high-performance machines for customers in the forestry, recycling, sawmill, biomass, landscaping, irrigation, and tree care markets. It helps customers harvest, process, and convert organic materials into valuable, usable, and environmentally sound products. His son, Lon Morey, now heads the company.
In 77 years of life, Nub went further than most of us ever will if we live to be 100. He was a pioneering inventor, an entrepreneurial genius, a job creator, a benefactor of education. He knew the truth of what advertising guru Leo Burnett once said: “If you reach for the stars, you may not always get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”
Not bad for a guy whose formal education ended on the third day of the seventh grade. (This old Apple commercial sums him up well.)
Norval Morey not only knew what it takes to make a successful company tick; he knew what it takes to make a successful country tick as well. He spoke out in favor of individual liberty and free enterprise. He supported candidates who came down squarely in favor of those principles. One of those candidates, in fact, was me. He was my staunchest supporter when I ran for Congress in the primary and general elections of 1982. He wasn’t like so many businesspeople today: easily browbeat by the left and afraid to actively defend the very capitalism that allowed them to succeed.
Here was a man who had achieved great wealth and could have sat back at the age of 60 and simply said, “I quit. I’ve earned a life of leisure now” And no one would have begrudged him that leisure. But he went on for another 17 years — working, creating, employing, growing a company, even building a school for hundreds of Isabella County children.
Those who didn’t have the pleasure of knowing him well, but met him briefly, probably came away thinking this guy Morey was a little “different.” He could be cantankerous, but that was because he didn’t suffer fools gladly. He could be impatient, but that was because he wanted to get things done. He didn’t exactly speak the King’s English, but that never mattered because he always made eminently good sense. He never cared for kings, anyway.
Nub was a down-to-earth, no-pretense guy whose least concern was whether he impressed you. I never once heard him say anything boastful.
Framed and sitting on my office desk is a quote from a president of the United States that could have been said just as fittingly by Norval Morey: “Die when I may, I want it said of me by those who knew me best, that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow.”
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