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Commentary: Morris: From hunger to hoops

March 3, 2008

How do you go from fighting world hunger to polishing the tarnished image of an NBA basketball team?

That's the task at hand for Jim Morris, who said to a recent breakfast gathering, "I reached a point in my life when I realized that nothing I would do going forward would be as important as what I just did."

I suppose a number of us reach a similar place in our careers when we realize we have "hit the peak" in terms of impact and accomplishment. But few of us have played on the level from which Morris just descended.

As executive director of United Nations' World Food Program from 2002 to 2007, Morris led the world's largest international effort to tackle what is arguably its biggest humanitarian problem.

"Hunger is the greatest weapon of mass destruction in the world," he said to the audience.

The facts are mind-numbing. 854 million people across the globe are hungry. Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes-that's one child every five seconds (more at www.wfp.org).

The WFP is on the front lines of that war all over the world. In 2006, it distributed 4 million tons of food to some 88 million people, including 59 million children. The WFP employs 10,587 people and runs operations in 78 countries around the world.

What wouldn't seem frivolous next to that?

So, how do you go from thinking in those terms to thinking about marketing a professional sports team, the Indiana Pacers in particular?

My guess is that you don't, not really, at least not completely. It's clear from Jim Morris' words that the last five years have been life-changing for him. No doubt he will be involved in fighting hunger in some manner for the rest of his days.

Today, Morris wonders how the world can come together to address the problem, one that everyone agrees is horrible and wants to eradicate, but one for which consensus on a comprehensive strategy is elusive. He noted in his talk that every great religion of the world-from Christianity to Judaism to Islam to Hinduism and more-teaches that man must take care of his fellow man, yet hunger persists in epic proportions. Morris told his breakfast audience that he could've signed on for another five years as head of the WFP, but the travel was taking its toll on him and his family. He was on the road around the world from his home in Rome 85 percent of the time. He also said he "longed for Indianapolis." Lucky for us. Before his five-year stint at the WFP, Morris was at the forefront and behind the scenes of so many of the initiatives that have transformed Indianapolis over the last 30 years that it's fruitless to list them. He was chief of staff for Mayor Richard Lugar, president of Lilly Endowment and president of IWC Resources.

In addition to all those professional duties, he's been on the boards of countless civic organizations. During his career, he's received much recognition and multiple honors, including this newspaper's firstever Michael A. Carroll Award in 1993.

A graduate of Indiana University and former chairman of its board, he loves the school dearly and has been suffering greatly in recent weeks over the controversy surrounding its basketball program. I would be surprised if his counsel wasn't sought out during the last few weeks as IU tried to bring resolution to the disruptive controversy. Through it all, Morris has remained a humble servant to whatever cause is at hand. The other day, I was struck by his compassion and his unassuming, selfless manner. No doubt, Morris' influence will go well beyond the Pacers and Indianapolis, but our city is sure to benefit once again from his leadership and ability to build bridges. I'm glad he's home.



Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com.
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