For years, Lillie Morrison was the only woman to stand up in her Fresno church every Veterans Day and Memorial Day when the pastor asked veterans to rise and be acknowledged, recalls one longtime friend. A trailblazer for women now serving in the U.S. military, Mrs. Morrison was among the first women in the nation to enlist when she joined the Navy during World War II at the age of 20.
She felt an obligation to serve her country, too.
Vicki Morrison, daughter of Lillie Morrison
Mrs. Morrison died July 4 in Fresno at the age of 92. Her daughter, Vicki Morrison, thinks it’s fitting that her mother passed away on Independence Day.
“She wanted to do whatever it took to contribute in her own way,” she said of her mother’s service during WWII, “and she wasn’t afraid of hard work.”
Mrs. Morrison grew up as the eighth of 10 children on an Oklahoma farm during the Great Depression. Her father died when she was 13. She was working at a phone company after high school when a Navy recruiter came to town. She was eager to enlist and follow in the footsteps of her older sister, Ruby, who had enlisted in the Army and was on her way to serve in Italy.
“The country was in a patriotic mode” in 1944, said Vicki Morrison. “Everyone wanted to work together to keep the country strong.”
Mrs. Morrison also “could not wait to see the world” and she got her first glimpse of it when she was sent to boot camp in New York, and then was stationed in San Francisco. She served there for two years as a switchboard operator, helping connect phone calls. It was during this time that she met her late husband, Robert, an Army Air Force pilot. The couple later moved to Fresno in 1951 and raised two children together (son Bruce died in 2010).
Mrs. Morrison made headlines last year during a Central Valley Honor Flight trip when she collapsed from hypoxia, a condition caused by a lack of oxygen, while flying to Washington, D.C., to see the war memorials there for the first time. Her plane had to make an emergency landing in Colorado Springs, where she was hospitalized and remained for about a week.
As she recovered, the community there gave her a warm welcome that included a visit from a senior enlisted leader of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Vicki Morrison, who accompanied her mother on the trip, recalls her astonishment at the visit. Mrs. Morrison said she “was only a switchboard operator,” to which she received this reply: “Ma’am, you just don’t know who you might have connected.”
In Fresno, Mrs. Morrison worked as a Bank of America teller for 17 years before deciding to follow a longtime dream of opening a Merle Norman cosmetics store in the 1970s at the age of 55 when she was a grandmother and her husband was retiring. She would own and operate three in Fresno and Clovis over 20 years, employing more than 35 women until her retirement. One of her employees, Sharon Jackson, says Mrs. Morrison was always professional and loved helping women feel beautiful and empowered.
She was just a really positive, uplifting person.
Judy Powell, niece of Lillie Morrison
“She didn’t demand respect, she automatically got it with the ease and the confidence in which she moved through everything,” Jackson says. “I don’t think I ever saw her rattled. We could be busier than heck … you would never know we were in the middle of chaos. She moved right through it.”
Mrs. Morrison’s daughter remembers her as easygoing, positive and forgiving. Two of her favorite phrases: “People are people!” and “I’m just along for the ride.”
“My mom, the glass was always half full,” Vicki Morrison says. “She had the best attitude toward life. She was so grateful for everything. She had a wonderful laugh and she laughed easily. … She made everyone feel welcome. She had a very loving way about her.”
Lillie Mae Morrison
Born: Sept. 7, 1924
Died: July 4, 2017
Occupation: Navy veteran and former owner of Merle Norman cosmetic stores
Survivors: Daughter Vicki Morrison; numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews
Celebration of life: 11 a.m. Wednesday Northwest Church, 5415 N. West Ave., Fresno.