Contributed by Sarah Downing
A new acquisition at the Western Regional Archives (WRA) provides poignant insight into the life of a young patient at the Oteen Veteran’s Hospital near Asheville during the 1920s. The William Conway Morris Oteen Diaries were recently donated by a relative of the Virginia student and soldier. Morris contracted tuberculosis after enlisting in the U.S. Army at the start of World War I. He returned to college at Hampden Sydney in Virginia but soon took up residence at Catawba Sanitarium near Salem, Virginia. In late 1925, he arrived at the Oteen Hospital where he began his diary.
In his daily accounts, Morris records visitors, goings on in the hospital, and often mentions his disposition, especially recurring bouts of loneliness. Bedridden for a number of years, Morris attempts to maintain hope for recovery. He is especially motivated by visits from a petite young woman named Ursula, who visits him frequently.
In addition to regular entries, also included are lists of nurses (Morris had a penchant for the ladies and was always glad when a new gal came on staff) and fellow patients on his ward.
Bob Kaplan, a volunteer at the WRA, has been creating a transcription of Morris’s handwritten accounts. “It’s fascinating,” he said. “Transcribing his diary is like gaining a personal peek into history. I am reading a person’s thoughts from 90 years ago.”
The diaries are also colorful with Morris’s use of slang popular during the 1920s. For example, he calls a visitor a “good skate.” Another visitor is described as a “sheik,” a term made popular by the 1921 silent movie The Sheik, starring Rudy Valentino.
After two years at Oteen with no improvement to his condition, William Conway Morris returned to his home in Darlington Heights, Prince Edward County, Virginia, where he died in May of 1928.