Bill Morrissey, 67, died December 1, leaving a legacy of more than 30 years of dedication and love for Minnesota’s state parks and trails. Morrissey helped create several state parks and served on the Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota board from 2007 to 2010. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor last year.
"Bill Morrissey was a fierce, tenacious, effective advocate for parks who understood the political process and the management culture of DNR,” said Steve Thorne, former DNR deputy commissioner and current President of Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota. “He built strong relations with parks staff and supporters and made major improvements to the management of the park system, maintaining a high level of service and protecting the priceless treasures of our state parks in the face of constant budget pressure.”
Born and raised in St. Paul, Morrissey attended Cretin High School and attributed his love for the outdoors to spending time at the family cabin in Forest Lake. While attending the University of Minnesota in 1968, he was drafted into the army and posted to Germany. After discharge, Morrissey returned to the University of Minnesota, completing his degree in forestry. He started his career with the DNR as the grants-in-aid coordinator for recreation, where he worked on snowmobile trails.
“I can say, from our childhood, we were influenced by my dad's great love for the outdoors, and adored the first pair of skis he spruced up for us from the army surplus store—one pair for me and Bill to share—and which we used all winter long on the little hill on the vacant lot next door,” recalled Bill Morrissey’s older sister, Ann Morrissey. “Bill developed a life-long love for skiing, downhill and, to a lesser extent, cross-country, and was enthralled with the opportunities in the Trails division to check out land for ski and snowmobile trail development. Though I can't say for sure where his passion came from, I can say I could hear it every time I happened to turn on the car radio and hear his voice describing the parks, their magnificent assets and wilderness opportunities. He knew every park in Minnesota and could describe each one's specific claim to fame.”
In 1987, Morrissey was named the director of parks and recreation for the DNR. He met with Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota leader Sam Morgan and became one of Minnesota parks’ leading advocates. During his tenure with the DNR, Morrissey was faced with state budget deficits in 1999 and 2003. He had to make difficult decisions that included closing campgrounds and laying off naturalists.
“I have had the privilege of working as the director of the Minnesota State Parks for 15 years,” he wrote in an email to park supporters in 2003. “And during that time have tried to squeeze the most out of shrinking budgets in order to keep park services available to you, our customer.”
“Bill never lost the long term vision of protecting the resources of the state and making resources available for future generations,” Megan Morrissey, his youngest sister, said.
“Bill understood complex issues and is a straight shooter—and somehow he managed to accomplish what he needs to accomplish without offending anyone,” Ann Morrissey said.
Morrissey retired from the DNR in 2003 and was named Wisconsin’s Park Director the same year. He held that position for two years. In 2004, he received the Reuel Harmon Award, the Parks & Trails Council’s most prestigious award, for his service on behalf of Minnesota’s parks and trails. Morrissey is credited with helping bring about 10 Minnesota state parks (with a total of 42,000 acres added) and being an early proponent for state trails.
Morrissey’s position with the DNR was taken over by Courtland Nelson, a good friend of his since the mid-1980s.
“His friends were really important to him and he took lots of time to take good care of his friends,” Nelson said. “He had a broad group of folks he considered his good friends that sustained him through his tough times.”
Morrissey focused on park visitors as well as acquisitions. He successfully found funding for new visitor centers, access to diverse areas and interpretive centers. His passion for education expanded into work with the University of Minnesota, which landed him the Lifetime Achievement Award from the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences in May 2011.
“He was patient,” said Megan Morrissey. He shared his interests with his family, especially taking interest in his nieces and nephews, and said he taught all the family members to “take pride and joy knowing these [parks and trails] will be enjoyed by generations we’ll never meet.”
Morrissey enjoyed a variety of outdoor activities, including camping, hiking, downhill skiing, biking, in-line skating and canoeing.
“Even though Bill was trained at the University of Minnesota and his training primarily was forestry, he was very much an outdoor recreation enthusiast and had a wonderful perspective of history,” said Nelson. “He was a busy, active guy—he climbed in caves, rode snowmobiles, rode bikes, participated in kayak and canoe events. He was very attuned … he lived the healthy outdoor lifestyle.”
“Our knowledge of trees, trail maintenance, the things that go to keep the parks up, came from him,” said Ann Morrissey. “We have knowledge we wouldn’t have if not for Bill. We learned that Minnesota parks are a real gem. “He always had a lot of fun things to say, a lot of fun stories to tell.”
“He had a wicked sense of humor and an infectious smile,” said Thorne. “He was always fun to be with, and he never let a disagreement over policy or budgets create lasting animosity.”