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April 20, 2017
Sitting in a favorite chair inside her apartment on a rainy afternoon in Houston, Emma Lee Vance Morgan ’39 reflected on her life and some of the experiences she had at Northwest Missouri State University. She turned 99 years old Feb. 8 and remains proud of the education she received eight decades ago.
Emma Lee, a valedictorian at Smithville (Missouri) High School, enrolled in the fall of 1935 at what was then Northwest Missouri State Teachers College, majoring in commerce and math. She had been inspired to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who earned a college degree in 1904. “I wasn’t a little stay-at-home,” she said. “I wanted to go places and do things.”
She put herself through Northwest by working as a secretary for Dean J.C. Miller. In 1938, when Miller left to accept the presidency at another college, future Northwest President J.W. Jones assumed the dean’s role and Morgan stayed as his secretary until 1941. She worked from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday, except when she left the office to attend classes.
The details aren’t as clear as they used to be, but Emma Lee fondly recalls attending dances, Homecoming events and other social activities on the Northwest campus. She claims she never missed a Bearcat football or basketball game as a student.
She also met June “J.P.” Morgan, her husband of 57 years, at Northwest. J.P. had taken a break from school to teach and earn enough money to finish his degree when he returned to Northwest around 1937. “That’s when the sparks flew – not immediately, but they did fly,” Emma Lee said.
Emma Lee and J.P. married in 1941 as the United States was close to entering World War II.
“We were married secretly because if we were married he wasn’t eligible for the draft,” Emma Lee said. “We didn’t want anyone to say that we got married just so he wouldn’t be drafted. So we got married, and as soon as he was drafted we announced it.”
J.P. later earned a law degree at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and the Morgans eventually settled in Jefferson City, Missouri. The couple raised three children while J.P. went on to become an attorney and later a judge on the Missouri Supreme Court from 1969 until 1982, serving as chief justice from 1977 to 1979. He served on Northwest’s Board of Regents from 1961 to 1969, and he wrote and issued the Oath of Office to Dr. B.D. Owens during his 1977 presidential inauguration.
Tragically, J.P. died in Jefferson City in 1998 as the result of a car crash. Emma Lee moved to Houston two years ago to be closer to her son, Bill, and daughter-in-law, Sara.
Today, Emma Lee enjoys following the Bearcats online. She watched the football team win its most recent NCAA Division II National Championship in December and kept up with the success of the men’s basketball team.
She’s lived a full life, having traveled the world, dined with former President Bill Clinton and sunk four holes-in-one as a once avid golfer. On her 99th birthday, though, Emma Lee said it was “just another day.”
As she looks forward to her 100th birthday, she says she’ll continue to “keep on doing what I can, and what I can’t I’ll try.”
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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Northwest Missouri State University
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