Longtime state parks leader Bill Morrissey dies at 67

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 2, 2011 - 8:47 PM

30-year DNR employee oversaw state's parks and trails system for more than half of his tenure.

Bill Morrissey

Bill Morrissey's passion for the outdoors played out on the public's behalf during his decades as a tireless advocate for Minnesota's park system.

"His commitment to our state parks was the blood that ran through his veins,'' said Brett Feldman, executive director of the Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota.

Morrissey, 67, of Maplewood, longtime director of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' Parks and Trails Division, died of brain cancer Thursday.

A 30-year DNR employee, Morrissey oversaw the state's parks and trails system for 16 years. Under his leadership, eight state parks or recreation areas, including Grand Portage, Glendalough and Hill Annex Mine state parks, were added to the system, considered one of the nation's best.

"Bill was the guy who had the vision and desire to keep building our system and make it the best it could be,'' said Feldman. "That will be his legacy -- creating new parks, and making sure generations today and tomorrow will be able to love them.''

Morrissey excelled at finding compromise in the Legislature for his ideas. "He was one of those exceptional public servants whose passion allowed him to overcome political obstacles,'' Feldman said.

Said Courtland Nelson, a friend and current DNR parks director: "He was passionate until the day he died about the DNR and state parks and trails. His lifestyle was really built around that.''

Steve Thorne, former DNR deputy commissioner and current president of the Parks & Trails Council, said Morrissey "was a fierce, tenacious, effective advocate for parks who understood the political process and the management culture of the DNR."

'He dove in with gusto'

Morrissey, who grew up in St. Paul, fell in love with the outdoors during family canoe trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, said his brother-in-law Bruce Jacobson of St. Paul.

He attended Cretin High School in St. Paul, served in the military and earned a degree in forestry from the University of Minnesota. He began his career with the DNR as the grants-in-aid coordinator for recreation, working on snowmobile trails.

When he left the DNR in 2003, he was named director of parks for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. He held that position for two years before retiring and returning to the Twin Cities. He served on the Parks & Trails Council board from 2007 to 2010.

In 2004, he received the Reuel Harmon Award, the Parks & Trails Council's most prestigious award, for his service on behalf of Minnesota's parks and trails. "He was very proud of what he accomplished,'' Jacobson said.

In 2009, his brain tumor was diagnosed. He died at an assisted-living facility in Eagan.

When not working, Morrissey enjoyed bicycling, in-line skating, running, skiing, water-skiing, motorcycling, hiking and paddling. "Whatever he did, he dove in with gusto,'' Nelson said.

"Downhill skiing was probably his real passion,'' Jacobson said. "He was fearless on the slopes.''

Among his survivors are five sisters, Ann Morrissey of St. Paul, Kathy Mason of Cannon Falls, Minn., Michelle Burgad of Phoenix, Maureen Preiner of Eagan and Megan Morrissey of Minneapolis.

Visitation will be from 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Anderson Funeral Home, 1401 Arcade St., St. Paul. Services will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Guardian Angels Catholic Church, 8260 4th St. N., Oakdale.

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