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The legacy of a Vermont sportswriter: 'The passion was not lost on anyone'

Book cover
Rootstock Publishing
Longtime Vermont sportswriter Dave Morse

The fall sports season is well underway in Vermont. And for decades, Dave Morse would’ve been covering it.

The legendary sportswriter grew up in Waterbury, and was inducted in the Vermont Sports Hall of Fame for his coverage of high school and college athletics.

Morse passed away in 2015. It seems everyone in Vermont knew him, but he was also an enigmatic figure who kept aspects of his own life hidden even from those closest to him.

That’s according to a recently published biography called The Morse Code: Legacy of a Vermont Sportswriter. It was written by Brendan Buckley, a retired primary care physician in East Hardwick.

Vermont Public's Mitch Wertlieb caught up with Buckley to talk about the book. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: What was your own personal connection to Dave Morse? How did you come to know him?

Author smiling at camera
Vanessa Fournier
Hardwick Gazette
Brendan Buckley

Brendan Buckley: Well, as you can tell from the cover, he was somebody hard to miss in a crowd. For those listening, he had a Wilford Brimley mustache and a shock of white hair.

And he arrived in Hardwick just as our kids were reaching the age when they would start T-ball and other participatory athletics. And Dave was just there on the sidelines or sitting in the stands. And being in a small town, it's easy enough to go up and introduce yourself. And that started a conversation that continued on and off up until Dave's death. He covered our kids all the way through their participation in [University of Vermont] athletics.

Tell us about some of the early benchmarks of his career. Where did he get his start?

So he was born in Waterbury and started with WDEV, initially, not an on-air voice. But he eventually became an on-air voice with at least a noon-time sports update. So he went from DEV to the Times-Argus. So that was his transition to print journalism. Then a year in Springfield as their sports editor, and then before the age of 30, he was hired by the Rutland Herald to head up their sports department.

What stood out about Dave's style of reporting? What made him a great storyteller of sports in Vermont?

His passion, certainly Mitch — he couldn't hide it. The enthusiasm with which he described the athletic feats of kids from age 6 to 76 was remarkable. He would write often in a stream of consciousness where you hoped to be on the same page he was so that you could follow just where he was going. Sometimes, it wasn't always a blow by blow description of how a game unfolded. And it was similar if he was describing things in his spoken voice, but the passion was not lost on anyone.

Perhaps the most fascinating chapter in the book is also, I think, the saddest, and it seems for you as the author, maybe the most frustrating. It's called The Missing Years. And this deals with a span from 1974 to 1994, when Dave Morse had left Vermont and his local sportswriting career.

In introducing the chapter you write "I doubt that anyone but Dave Morse himself has a clear idea of how Dave passed the next two decades". And to be clear, you interviewed nearly 100 people for this book over a four-year span, right? And they couldn't provide too much more detail either as I understand it?

Dave was great at getting other people to talk to him, Mitch, but very guarded about what he chose to share.

We do know that he was married for a time. And did that marriage have something to do possibly with his leaving Vermont?

I think it had everything to do with it, Mitch. He was very briefly married to a woman named Marietta Munlin. She was a singer-pianist, but one who went from gig to gig on the road. It seems that she had a fairly regularly recurring gig at the Bardwell Hotel in Rutland, which I think was just a traditional watering hole for Rutland Herald staff, and Dave must have met Marietta there, and fell in love. They didn't marry until 1973. And then 10 months later, she was gone. She left him, moved to Maine, and just as suddenly Dave literally disappeared overnight from the offices of the Rutland Herald.

You didn't need to be a star player to appear in Dave's column.
Brendan Buckley

Much of the book chronicles how close Dave was with his sister Deanna. In fact, you dedicate the book to her. Did she not know of his whereabouts either during this time?

She was at best vaguely aware, Mitch. Because Dave's fortunes through those 20 years ran the gamut from seemingly quite successful and employed, to being homeless on the streets of New York City.

When he finally came back, I understand that he was showing signs of really having gone through a very rough time?

Deanna described him as arriving simply with a toilet kit and whatever clothes he was wearing. Clearly at this point, he was at a very low ebb. He was quite clear with her that his failure to hold through a marriage was for him an enormous embarrassment, and he carried with him a sense of shame and failure that I don't think he ever shook.

What did he start doing again when he got back here? Where was he working, and how did the rest of his career go from that point?

Deanna lived in the Morrisville area, and she and her husband helped Dave just get his feet back on the ground. He had a room, or a small apartment, in Morrisville. He had a job as a clerk at Cumberland Farms. He was also working as a clerk at Kaplan's department store in Morrisville when a graduate of the old Hardwick Academy came shopping and he recognized Dave, and he was the one who encouraged Dave to go speak with Ross Connelly at the Hardwick Gazette about an opening for a sportswriter. Ross was worried that the pond wouldn't be big enough for Dave given his sports writing credentials, but in fact, it was a match that was just perfect for both of them.

Ultimately, Brendan, what is the legacy that Dave Morse leaves as a sportswriter in the state of Vermont?

You didn't need to be a star player to appear in Dave's column. There was an appreciation night held for Dave the year before he died. And one of the beautiful stories told that night was by Billy Waller, who was the head coach of soccer and basketball at Cabot, and he talked about visiting a child's home some years after he had graduated from Cabot High School. And there on the refrigerator were clippings of Dave's column The Morse Code in which this boy had been mentioned, even though he had never started for any of the Cabot teams. He definitely was more of a bench role player, but Dave had found a number of times a way to put that boy's name in print. And that was really, I think, his goal, and also just paying forward what had been done for him as a child growing up in difficult circumstances in Waterbury. And I don't think he ever forgot that there were key mentors who started him on his path — and that he then tried to fill that role.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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