Las Vegas Sun

May 17, 2021

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Morris leaves legacy of giving to the community

"It's not easy explaining to (my) grandchildren why they call me Wildcat," Bill Morris told the Sun for a May 1993 story.

He so loved his alma mater, Las Vegas High School, he took its nickname as his own. And he so loved to play football that it cost him his left kneecap, which was surgically replaced in 1993 because of a severe injury suffered in the Hula Bowl 44 years earlier.

"Now they (the grandchildren) call me "Grandpa New Knee," Morris, who also was the star of the legendary 1944 Las Vegas High state championship gridiron team that was unbeaten, untied and unscored upon, said five years ago.

William Wesley "Wildcat" Morris so loved Las Vegas, UNLV and the University of Nevada, Reno that he gave so much more of himself than a simple patella during his storied life that ended Friday when he suffered a fatal heart attack shortly after he left the Reno-Tahoe International Airport en route to a university fund-raiser. He was 70.

Services for the Las Vegas resident of 61 years will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Our Lady of Las Vegas Catholic Church. Viewing will be 4-7 p.m. today, followed by a rosary at Palm Mortuary downtown. Interment will be at Palm's downtown cemetery.

Morris' many contributions to the schools' academic and athletic programs and to his community made him one of Nevada's most popular and influential figures of the last half of the 20th century.

A hotel-casino owner, he served as a University Regent from 1971-75 and as a Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority board member from 1980-83.

"I've lost a great friend I've known for practically all my life and the community has lost a great person who constantly gave and gave," said former District Court Judge John Mendoza, who was captain of the 1944 Wildcat football team.

"He was a man -- an orphan -- who came into this life with very little. But Bill was a fighter who loved to meet challenges. And he left this world with a wealth of friends and made his community a lot better place in which to live."

Morris was co-owner of the old Holiday Casino and Nob Hill Casino on the Strip and owner of the Landmark hotel-casino.

He and his wife of 43 years, Vivienne Morris, assisted with the fund-raising efforts of numerous Las Vegas charities.

Morris was co-founder of the UNLV Football Foundation, a multi-term president of the University Rebels Club and co-founder and past-president of the Rebel Athletic Foundation.

Morris served on the university committee of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and was director of the Student Aid Foundation, where he raised scholarship money for worthy poor students.

He was instrumental in getting the Silver Bowl -- now Sam Boyd Stadium -- and the Thomas & Mack Center built for UNLV. The school named its on-campus practice field in his honor.

An attorney by trade, Morris often told folks he was not very studious. At Las Vegas High, he said he preferred to party and would never back down from a good fist fight.

One of the reasons his many community efforts centered around sports was because he credited sports with being the springboard into his other ventures.

"If I had been deprived of football, I would not have finished high school, college and gone on to law school," Morris told the Sun in 1993, the year his beloved Las Vegas High moved its campus from downtown to the far eastern side of town.

But Mendoza, who also was an orphan, said Morris downplayed his intelligence.

"He was not the bookworm or the scholar type, but Bill was one bright guy," said Mendoza, now director of the Nevada Transportation Services Authority board.

"Bill was an advocate for education and was very interested in seeing the university system reach out to all students in the state."

Still Morris, who also played prep football with Chief District Judge Myron Leavitt and attorney Tom Bell, loved to tell stories about his bad boy image at Las Vegas High.

One story was about the halftime of a 1944 game in which the Wildcats were up 20-0. Morris said he decided to start celebrating a little early and was caught taking a swig from a whiskey bottle. Initially he was kicked off the team, but was later reinstated.

After beating several powerful California schools -- none of which was able to put together two consecutive first downs against the Wildcats -- the Harvey Stanford-coached Las Vegas High squad was named No. 1 on the West Coast by the Los Angeles Times.

When Morris went to UNR in the fall of 1945, he talked so much about that Las Vegas High football powerhouse, his teammates nicknamed him "Las Vegas Wildcat." It was later shortened to "Wildcat." Even in the business world, the name stuck. Undoubtedly it will stand for an eternity.

Born Sept. 13, 1927, in Enid, Okla., Morris was the youngest of 12 children -- nine girls and three boys. He came to Las Vegas in 1937 to live with one of his sisters, Sheila. He often joked that he was a "wedding present" to Sheila and her new husband.

Morris attended Fifth Street Grammar School, now a city building, and entered Las Vegas High in the fall of 1942.

Coach Stanford took a liking to the rambunctious young man and sought to instill in him discipline during the turbulent days of World War II, when Morris, like a lot of young men of that era, thought about quitting school to enlist in the armed services.

Morris not only stayed in school but was voted most valuable player on the 1944 football team, where he played guard on offense and linebacker on defense.

Morris played linebacker for the UNR Wolf Pack, lettered from 1946-48 and graduated in 1949 with a degree in physical education.

When Stanford decided to retire from coaching that year, Morris came back to Las Vegas and applied for his job. He was a serious candidate to get it. But, at the same time, First California Co., then the only brokerage firm in town, offered Morris twice the money that the coaching position would have paid, so he took that job instead.

In 1951, Morris served in the Army at Fort Ord, Calif. He spent most of the Korean War at the base hospital because of his bad knee.

"I first came to know 'Wildcat' when we served together during the Korean War," former two-term Nevada Gov. Mike O'Callaghan said. "He was a tough kid with a big heart, who had the time for anybody who needed his help. He never changed. He has done more acts of quiet kindness for fellow Nevadans than any other person I know."

O'Callaghan, now executive editor of the Sun, said Morris has been "a hero to hundreds of local boys and girls who looked to him for help and understanding. 'Wildcat' was a role model for young and old alike."

In 1953, Morris got a staff job working for Nevada Sen. Pat McCarran in Washington, D.C. When McCarran died and Alan Bible replaced him, Morris stayed on and, at the same time, attended American University, where he earned a law degree in 1959.

Morris, who met Vivienne Mae Potter of Reno in law school and married her in 1955, returned to Las Vegas in 1959, passed the Nevada Bar and set up practice as a partner in the law firm of Christensen, Bell & Morris. He also was an associate municipal judge from 1960-61, and a special deputy attorney general from 1961-62.

In 1960 and '64, Morris served as an alternate delegate to the Democratic National Convention and, also in the early '60s, served as a member of the State Democratic Central Committee and Clark County Central Committee.

In 1966, Morris sought the Democratic nomination for attorney general.

In the 1970s, Morris reinvested in the gaming industry, becoming part-owner of the Holiday Casino -- it was sold in 1982 to Holiday Inns Inc., and has since become Harrah's -- and the Nob Hill, also on the Strip. Morris also was chairman of the Little Dutch Boy Cookie Co. of Salt Lake City.

In 1973, Morris, who had helped secure funding that built the Silver Bowl off Boulder Highway, became the driving force behind the effort to build the $30 million, 18,000-seat campus stadium, which later was named the Thomas and Mack Center.

"The project will be one of the biggest in Intercollegiate history," Morris correctly predicted in a 1979 interview. He was credited with securing the federal funding that made it possible to build the Thomas and Mack and UNR's Lawlor Event Center at no cost to Nevada taxpayers.

Morris, who served on the Nevada Development Authority and Allied Arts Council boards, was named a Distinguished Nevadan at the 1978 UNLV graduation exercises.

In 1982, Morris spearheaded efforts to bring professional baseball to Cashman Field. As a result, the Las Vegas Stars AAA ball club was born.

In the 1983, Morris took over the 31-story, 498-room Landmark and struggled to keep it going. But the needle-like structure closed in January 1990 and eventually was imploded to make room for a parking lot.

In December 1983, Morris ended his term on the LVCVA board, saying it should be run more like a business than a government agency. Ironically, Morris' fortune dwindled over the next few years because of poor business decisions.

In 1984, Morris and some business partners brought the Las Vegas Americans soccer team to town, but the franchise folded in 15 months. He had even less luck with his investments in the Sky Mountain Preserve private membership resort 40 miles west of Las Vegas and the Cowboy Village project in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

But, by far, the biggest drain came from the Landmark, into which he initially sank $4.3 million of his own money, and even more throughout the 1980s as he tried to get it on its feet. The resort went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in July 1985. Attempts to secure multimillion-dollar loans to improve the property never materialized.

But while Morris' financial wealth shrank, his spiritual wealth never diminished.

In 1983, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, at its ninth annual dinner, named Morris its Distinguished Citizen.

The next year, Morris became the fifth recipient of the Glen "Jake" Lawlor Award for outstanding support of UNR athletics at the 16th annual Wolf Pack Dinner in Carson City. He was en route to the 30th anniversary of that event at the Governor's Mansion when he died Friday. Morris had helped start the event to benefit UNR athletes.

Morris is a member of the UNR, UNLV, and Nevada High School Halls of Fame. Two months ago, Morris, along with his good friend, former longtime UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, was inducted into the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame.

Six years ago, Morris was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had been receiving treatment for it. He also had prior heart problems, his family said.

Last Friday, Morris was in a car driven by Jackie Springer, the wife of Chief Justice Charles Springer, when he keeled over. Vivienne tried to revive him. He was taken to Washoe Medical Center where he was pronounced dead shortly after 4 p.m.

Sen. William Raggio, R-Reno, the master of ceremonies at the Wolf Pack Dinner, called for a moment of silence to remember the fallen sports hero of Nevada.

Morris often said his philosophy of life was to first, be a good husband because "that is the longest contract you will ever enter into," second, be a good parent and let your kids know you love them and, third, be a good provider for your family.

"He also felt that if there was anything left after meeting those three goals that it should be given back to the community," his son, William Morris, said. "My father was very successful with what he accomplished in the unselfish way, giving to so many."

In addition to his wife and son, both of Las Vegas, Morris is survived by three daughters, Dawn Dudas and Wesley Morris, both of Las Vegas and Jayme Bodensteiner, of Flagstaff, Ariz.; a brother, Sonny Morris of Las Vegas; two sisters, LaVenia Morris of Las Vegas and Lois Demoran of San Diego, and 10 grandchildren.

He was preceded in death by a brother and seven sisters