In the late 1930s, much of what is now covered in buildings and roads was prairie and marshland in Houston. The University of Houston was barely a decade old, and student Stewart Morris, Sr., rode his horse from the family ranch, tying it to a hitching post next door before going to evening classes each weekday dressed in his boots and spurs. In the daytime, he worked in the family business, Stewart Title Company. After work, he would get a ride home before galloping off to school.
Morris was the fifth child of William Carloss Morris and Willie Stewart, born in October 1919. Like many families who once lived in Galveston, the Morrises had moved further inland after the Category 4 hurricanes that hit the coastal city in 1900 and again in 1915. The family members were devout Christians, and at 9 years old, Morris was at First Baptist Church when the preacher gave an invitation to accept Jesus Christ as savior.
“A friend of mine came up to me and said, ‘Why aren’t you going down?’ I said, ‘Well, okay.’ I got a conviction and went down bawling. When they got through praying and the preacher had everybody stand up and he made the announcement, I remember to this day as I left there I went running because I knew my family was waiting and I felt like I was taking 10-foot leaps. I just felt free. It was really for me a moment of change when I accepted Christ,” he remembers. “After that, they thought I was going to be a preacher – my daddy did. But I told him ‘no’; I was going to work in the family business.”
As a child, Morris began working as the resident “office boy” at age 10, sweeping the floor, running errands, filing papers and delivering coffee. With earnings of $5 per week, Morris was instructed by his father to give $1 to church, to save $1 and to buy his own items such as clothing.
While his parents were strict and had high expectations, Morris kept a cantankerous side. He notoriously adopted a pet leopard named “Spot,” and boarded him in his bedroom to keep family members from traipsing through his personal space. “At work, I went from office boy to head office boy, and then later on I progressed up to where I was posting business transfers,” he said. “There was a man there named ‘French.’ He said, ‘Boy, I don’t know if you can ever amount to anything. I’ll be surprised if you ever made $300 a month.’ I was about 15.”
But Morris had drive and a natural way of relating with people that gave him success. He graduated from San Jacinto High School, and at U of H, he was named the class president his sophomore year. His junior year, he adopted a Ford Model A as his mode of transportation and transferred to the University of Texas for his bachelor’s degree. Like many in his family, he also pursued a law degree from Southern Methodist University.
It was at SMU that he reconnected with an old friend, Joella Mitchell. “We met at a Baptist camp when she was 10 and I was 13. We had sat on the back of a boat with a watermelon and had a contest between the two of us – who could spit the seed the farthest,” he said. “I saw her for the first time in 10 years when she was going to SMU. She was a grown-up, good-looking lady. We started dating.”
The year 1943 marked several huge milestones. Morris graduated with his BA, law degree and also with a midshipman’s degree from Columbia University. He and Joella married and Morris joined the Navy, all before the year was out. World War II was raging, and Morris was sent to the South Pacific to serve as an officer. “I had one stripe on my sleeve when I reported for duty in San Diego. I got on this ship and it was filthy. There were 120 men living there with no discipline. I took it upon myself to clean up this ship,” he said. While he worked to bring discipline and order, Morris put aside his own fears. “I was a scared sailor,” he said. “It was the first time I had seen dead men … in the water. I lost some of my hearing from the canons.”
Houston and Business
At the close of the war in 1945, Morris returned home to Houston to again work in the family business. Full of ambition, Morris was determined to expand Stewart Title beyond the region. “I told my dad, ‘Why don’t I just go to Brownsville and start at the end of Texas, and work up to San Antonio, Fort Worth, Dallas and El Paso.’”
His stint in Brownsville extended when the man who had been hired to run the Stewart office there passed away. Always a learner and a communicator, Morris became proficient in the Spanish he had begun learning in school. As he drove from town to town, establishing business contacts, it became clear to him that flying would be more efficient. Morris took the airlines for a while, but the service was not expedient. So, he learned a new skill, securing his pilot’s license and flying a single-engine Bonanza. As more of Texas was under his belt, Morris began spreading the title business into surrounding states.
He and Joella’s three children, Carlotta, Stewart Jr. and Lisa, grew up with horses in what is now the Rivercrest neighborhood. They also raised cattle. Lisa ’76, remembers a childhood spent largely outside and in pursuit of adventure. “Dad would fly us and we would go to places that were not really commercialized,” she said. “I remember going to places like Cozumel, and we would buzz the runway first to get the animals off the runway and then land.”
Morris instilled in his children and employees a forward-thinking ethos, a hunger for excellence and a deep faith in God. When Morris was at the helm of a project, it seemed like there was nothing that would be impossible.
In 1950, the World Wide Pictures team was working to create “Mr. Texas,” which evangelist Billy Graham called “the first Christian Western.” They were short of funds, and Morris was called upon to help raise $75,000. “I got the idea of going to the Houston Club,” Morris remembers. “I invited 15 people – my brother, mother and 12 others. We had the vice president of the Second National Bank sitting down with us. The actors came in and told the story of the film. I said, ‘Each one of you present is going to sign a guarantee of $5,000 apiece, and we’re going to have the bank lend $75,000. But we’re all going to guarantee the note, with an agreement with Billy Graham that at every showing of the film, they’ll take up a collection. And then all the money collected goes to the bank to pay back the loan.”
Starting with his mother and brother, the bright-eyed Morris inspired every contributor in the room to give, and the loan was paid back as promised. Perhaps that experience was just the practice that was needed for an even bigger undertaking.
Beginning in 1952, the Union Baptist Association began asserting the need for a Baptist College in Houston(1). A Special College Committee explored options for making the dream a reality in the bustling city, working with the Education Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. In accordance with the growth pattern of the city, the UBA was glad to learn of a site in Sharpstown.
A 390-acre tract was ultimately offered in return for $760,000 in cash. It was Houston businessman Jake Kamin’s involvement in the project that propelled the idea into action. The committee asked Kamin, the founder of American Mortgage Company, to talk to Morris about being involved on the property committee. Morris now jokes that he would have let Kamin talk as long as he wanted to since Kamin was in the mortgage business and he was in the title business.
Morris joined the effort, ultimately helping secure a loan of $500,000 after speaking to C.A. Dwyer, business manager at Rice Institute (now University). With such a significant sum secured, the group still needed $260,000 more. Morris suggested that the Bank of the Southwest lend the remaining funds based upon the personal guaranty that a group of founders would back the loan.
Like he had done with the Billy Graham film, Morris used the same method for raising money for the land. In 1958, the personal notes for $10,000 by 25 men allowed the UBA to purchase the land. The acquisition of such a significant amount of land in a prime location was nothing short of a miracle. While there were still obstacles to overcome, the sale of portions of the property to entities including Southwest Memorial Hospital (now Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital) allowed for the payback of the loan.
In his book about the history of HBU, “An Act of Providence,” Dr. Don Looser said of Morris, “His knowledge of the dynamics of the city and of the real estate business, along with his commitment to the realization of a Christian college, made him the gifted leader and advocate the project required.”
HBU president, Dr. Robert B. Sloan, calls Morris “indomitable.” He said, “There is no other single person more influential in the founding and earliest history of HBU than Dr. Stewart Morris, Sr. He was involved from the very earliest days, bringing his expertise, hard work, faith, ingenuity, financial creativity and generosity of time and treasure that brought HBU into being. Humanly speaking, we would not be here without him.”
While Morris was heavily involved on the front end of the college formation and in its founding in 1960, his labor of love continued as he helped shepherd matters ranging from founding documents to facility construction decisions.
Looser records some of the bold sacrifices that University founding fathers like Morris made in the early days of the school: “Many of these founders laid aside their personal career and business activities for months at a time to respond to the extraordinary needs of the new college. On many occasions — some recorded and many doubtless unrecorded — trustees personally paid College expenses.”
For Morris, failure was never an option. “If you start something, don’t quit,” he said. “Every life has bumps in the road. That’s what heroes are made of – they just don’t quit.”
Over the years, Stewart and Joella gave in numerous ways. The beautiful Joella and Stewart Morris Cultural Arts Center was dedicated on campus in 2007. They helped bring to life the Museum of Southern History in the Center, and even supported the Morris section of Husky Stadium. In 2018, The Morris Family Center for Law & Liberty was established. In all, Dr. Morris’ lifetime giving to the University is $25 million, along with countless hours. This fall, a bench with a seated statue in his likeness is being added to the campus. Fittingly, the statue depicts him in his cowboy boots and hat, holding a Bible turned outward.
“What my father taught me when I was 10 years old about giving and saving – I still observe it,” Morris said. “The Bible says really simply: ‘It’s more blessed to give than to receive.’”
Through the years, Morris helped grow Stewart Title into an international powerhouse, with operations in all 50 states and in 40 countries. Still, Morris is the same person he always was. Beside the modest home he has lived in for six decades, Morris keeps a carriage house full of his beloved antique carriages, which he continues to drive with Stewart Jr. The structure, which was once a restaurant in a bygone era, is lined with walls and shelves that are full of memorabilia from past generations and from his own legendary undertakings and accomplishments.
Yet, outside of his family, Morris said he is most proud of his life’s work to make HBU a reality. From the beginning, he wanted to help ensure that HBU was, and would continue to be, a Christian institution where “Jesus Christ is Lord.” He said, “Every staff and faculty member has to accept Jesus Christ and believe the Bible. I was so determined to set and keep that standard.”
When he thinks about the last 99 years of his life, Morris has ready advice for others. “I keep a Bible on my kitchen table where I eat breakfast. I decided the Bible is more current than the Houston Chronicle. The Word of God is alive and powerful,” he said. Morris quotes his favorite passage, Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
Reference: Looser, Dr. Don. “An Act of Providence: A History of Houston Baptist University, 1960-2010.” Halcyon Press, 2010.