Jim Morton looks back — and he likes what he sees

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 27, 2014

HINA GROVE — There comes a season in every man’s life where he tends to look back on his accomplishments. Jim Morton has been doing that of late — and he likes what he sees.

Jim and his wife, Shirley, both turn 80 this summer. They recently celebrated their 60th anniversary with a beach trip. Most of their four children, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren were in attendance at one point or another during the week.
The fact that Hurricane Arthur blew through at Emerald Isle didn’t bother them in the least.
“We just went on with our business,” Shirley says, and that Friday night, on July 4, the family walked out to see fireworks all up and down the beach.
“We had a good celebration,” Shirley says.
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Jim has chosen to use turning 80 as an excuse to thank people for all the years they’ve helped him in business. Jim founded Morton Engineering in 1990; son David joined him in 2002.
“We’ve been at it long enough together that people know he’s the kingpin now,” Jim says.
So he feels comfortable turning the daily operations over to David.
Both Jim and David have degrees in engineering from N.C. State University. Both have worked in all aspects of the discipline, from design and construction to maintenance and operations.
Jim says he hopes to serve as a consultant to his son for many more years to come, but from now on, David will officially be in charge of the business.
“It’s been convenient to work together and it’s been good to see him develop,” Jim says. The two work in the basement office of Jim and Shirley’s comfortable China Grove home.
“David’s very smart and savvy,” his mom says. “Between the two of them, they can come up with solutions. It’s been a good working relationship.”
“It’s been great,” David says of working with his dad. “It’s given me the opportunity to move back here.”
David was working in Virginia Beach when he and wife Rebecca started discussing having a family.
“We just decided we wanted to raise the kids in a smaller town,” he says. “We chose China Grove.”
Jim and David are especially grateful for the loyalty their clients have shown over the years.
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After graduating from State, Jim began his professional career with the late John Irwin Ramsay.
“I still do things today when I think, ‘John Ramsay taught me to do this’ or ‘This is how John would do it,’” Jim notes. “He was a teacher. He was a man of principle, and he stuck to his guns.”
With Ramsay’s architectural firm, Jim played a significant role in design and construction of the Robertson Community Center at Catawba College. He worked as an engineer for Wachovia Bank and with Jarrell and Sons before deciding to return to the Navy in 1971. He’d served a short time after college and realized he never should have left.
By then, he and Shirley had four young children: Donna, David, Doug — all born within three years of one another — and Darren, seven years younger than Doug.
During the next year when he was in Vietnam, Jim and Shirley wrote letters to one another — which they still have — and talked on the phone only once.
Jim left the service in 1983, and returned to work with Clark Tribble Harris and Li architects in Charlotte.
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Jim and Shirley almost bought a home in Charlotte, but decided to return to China Grove, where they’d both grown up.
“Jim and Darren came home one day and said, ‘We found a lot,’” Shirley says. “We bought the lot and built the house.”
It happened to be during one of the coldest winters Jim remembers, but the house was soon completed, and Jim’s commute from China Grove to Charlotte turned out to be shorter than that of many colleagues who lived in the city.
Jim returned to Jarrell in 1987 before opening his own firm three years later.
“Everything that I’ve done has been not by plan, but it’s worked out great,” Jim says.
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Around this time, Jim entered local politics.
Jim and Shirley’s background of service comes from their parents. His parents were the late Alva and Alma Morton, and her parents were Clyde and Margaret “Perk” Graeber.
“If I were shopping for in-laws, I couldn’t have done better,” he says. “All of our parents instilled in us the value of service and giving back.”
Jim began working with the China Grove Planning Board. He and Carole Brooke, a local attorney, acquired the former Wagoner Chevrolet property for the town. The town hall and fire department now occupy that space on Main Street.
As a result of his success on the planning board, Jim decided to run for town board. When the mayor resigned, Jim as top vote-getter became mayor. He served 10 years as mayor, from 1985 to 1995.
All of those years were spent volunteering at Farmers Day. Jim and Shirley worked at their church, St. Mark’s Lutheran in downtown China Grove, during the 32nd annual Farmers Day on July 19.
“It’s just fun,” Shirley says. “It really is. We’ve enjoyed keeping involved with the community.”
Over the years, the Mortons have had numerous roles in Scouts, church and civic groups. For Shirley, that includes the China Grove Woman’s Club. For Jim, that includes Rotary International. He’s served as district governor and has just been named president of the local club for the fourth time.
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It all started in second grade. Jim and Shirley were in second grade together at China Grove Elementary, but Shirley doesn’t remember. She was too busy being the teacher’s pet, she says.
During World War II, Jim’s dad took a job as a machinist with the Navy yard in Washington, D.C.
“He worked seven days a week for a long time,” Jim remembers. His mom worked for the census bureau.
The family returned home when Jim was in seventh grade.
“We looked at each other for a couple of years, and I finally got up the nerve to ask her to a Scout party,” Jim says.
That was when they were 15. They began dating for real during senior year. They got married between their sophomore and junior years of college. Shirley attended Women’s College (later UNCG) but left to go to work at State, so Jim could finish his degree.
“She kept us alive for two years,” Jim says with no small amount of admiration.
“I have no regrets,” Shirley says of her decision. “Maybe later I should have gone and gotten by degree, but I never did. I guess it just was not meant to be.”
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Looking back, the thing Jim is most proud of is their family. All three sons hold engineering degrees from State. Daughter Donna is a retired teacher who lives with her family in Virginia Beach. Son Darren and his family live in northern Virginia. He retired as a commander after 20 years in the Navy, and is a project manager for a general contractor. Son Doug — a career Navy man — has just taken a joint command in Pakistan for a year.
While Jim and Shirley communicated via U.S. mail and a single phone call when he was in Vietnam, they talk with Doug via email or Skype.
“It’s just like he’s in the next room,” Jim says.
Jim and David are close because they have worked together for so long, but Jim and Shirley are close to their other three children as well. They’re the grandparents who always attend ball games and dance recitals and graduations and plays. There have been frequent trips to Raleigh for N.C. State football games with Darren and his family, and frequent trips to Darren’s beach house at Emerald Isle with various family members, as well as the big family trip in July.
“We’ve been so fortunate,” Shirley says, “because we’ve realized more and more that we have great children who married amazing spouses. All of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren are doing so well. We’re blessed.”
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.