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‘A calming and wise influence’

LEFT: Former KOAT-TV anchor Johnny Morris at his Northeast Heights home in December 2006. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal). RIGHT: Morris in June 1979. (Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Johnny Morris was ever the gentleman.

He was kind, generous, professional and reassuring. Above all, he was a calming presence in the often frenetic atmosphere of the television station newsroom, according to colleagues who worked with him at KOAT-TV, Channel 7.

Morris also made New Mexico TV history, when, in 1979, he became part of the first male and female newscast anchor team, along with Mary Lynn Roper, who later became the station’s news director, then president and general manager.

Morris died in a local hospital Saturday after a brief non-COVID-related illness. He was 96.

“I began at KOAT as a photographer and reporter. I was 24 years old, and Johnny was 30 years older than me, and had been a very experienced and well-respected anchor in the market,” Roper recalled this week.

“But from Day One, he couldn’t have been nicer, more welcoming and more reassuring. He’d say, ‘We’re a team; let’s go get ’em.’ ”

In fact, Roper said, “Johnny was a model for any man and how they should treat a woman in the workplace. He was considerate, kind and encouraging, and he treated me as an equal.”

KOAT’s chief meteorologist Joe Diaz began working at the station in 1979. “It was my first job. I … had no broadcast experience. Johnny was a veteran and the elder statesman of the newsroom. He wanted to be treated like a regular guy, but your first instinct was to treat him like a news icon – because he was.”

Despite the pressure-cooker newsroom environment, “I don’t think I ever saw Johnny upset,” Diaz said. “He was always a calming and wise influence.”

Johnny Morris was born John Morris Wigren in Mankato, Minnesota. He began his broadcast career in the late 1940s at his hometown radio station, KYSM-AM, and transitioned to television in 1955, when he took a job as a weathercaster at KSTP in Minneapolis.

In 1971, Morris moved to Albuquerque for a news anchor job at KOB-TV, Channel 4, but, in 1975, the station declined to renew his contract and Morris went into semiretirement.

Roper said Morris was enticed out of semiretirement in 1979 after longtime KOAT anchor Dick Knipfing went to KOB and KOAT management decided to change to a dual male-female anchor newscast. From the beginning, the Morris and Roper team had the No. 1 rated newscast in the Albuquerque TV market, said Max Sklower, who was general manager at the time and signed off on the new format.

In 1985, Jane Metzler replaced Roper, who became KOAT’s news director. Morris continued to co-anchor but later decided to lighten his load and switched to co-anchoring weekend newscasts with Augusta Meyers. He finally retired in earnest in 2000.

Peggy Wilcox, one of Morris’ six children, said that when she was growing up, her father made sure his family got a heavy dose of outdoor recreation, particularly snow and water skiing. Morris also enjoyed fishing, was an avid golfer and a respectable tennis player.

Despite his robust and assertive approach to the outdoors, Morris was “very much a quiet person,” Wilcox said. “There were six of us kids, so we didn’t have a quiet household. It wasn’t that he was serious, but he was quiet. And he could calm us with just a look.”

Wigren pointed to a recent social media posting by Roper in which she praised her late colleague’s ability to calm anxious young journalists.

“It made me laugh because my dad had six kids who gave him a lot of practice around the dinner table. All he had to do was raise an eyebrow. He never said a word, never raised his voice. He’d just give us a look, and whatever was going on just stopped.”

Melanie Brawley-Wigren, Morris’ wife, described her husband as “a kind and incredibly gentle soul.” The couple were married for 30 years but were together for 42. They met when she was working in production at KOAT. He was a news junkie then “and remained one up until his last days, wanting to hear the latest about the election,” she said.

“Johnny and I never had an argument, never yelled and screamed. It was just a very nice marriage.”

In addition to his wife, who lives in Albuquerque, and daughter Wilcox of South Padre Island, Texas, Morris is also survived by daughters Jodie Wigren of Boston; Christy Campbell of Lyman, Wyoming; Leah Wigren of Reno; Susie Snyder of Roswell; son Thomas Wigren of La Pine, Oregon; nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

A memorial service for Morris will be announced at a later time.

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