18 Jun 2020 Honoring service: Searcy vet works to assemble roll of honor
Bill “Rhino” Morton of Searcy is a man in demand. Through phone calls and emails, he hears from fellow vets for this favor or that; some are down on his or her luck, others are military family members looking for information on which Veterans Administration department to consult for help, or he might hear from one of his fellow motorcyclists with his local chapter of Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association looking to organize a benefit ride. Though retired, there are days his phone never stops ringing.
“Everything that I do is related around veterans,” he said. “I got a phone call the other day from a veteran who needed a ride to the VA. I said, ‘Let me call you back.’ I made some phone calls and sure enough I found another veteran here in town that will take her to the hospital. It works out like that.”
Over the past three years, a big share of Morton’s call volume has been related to the Searcy High School Military Veterans (SHSMV), a special roster of honor he’s been compiling to memorialize as many local men and women who have served as he can find.
“February of 2017 is when I started this,” he said. “I swear, I asked somebody every day, at least 10 times a day, ‘Who do you know that’s a veteran?’
“I remember when I had veteran number 10. Then I got to 99 and man, what do I gotta do to bust number 100. Well, I hit number 500 last night.”
Morton feels a connection to the men and women who have come to make up his roll call, not just for their shared service, but because they all have his hometown, Searcy, in common. It’s the thread with which he has stitched the SHSMV together.
“I had choices – either join or get drafted. So, I joined,” he said. “Three years, I went to Korea. I was a cook in the DMZ in the Army.
“There’s a lot of (military) guys that went to Searcy High School. Me and three of my brothers were all in. I had a classmate who was killed in Vietnam. One day I thought, I wonder how many kids who went to Searcy High School joined the military.”
Seeing as how Morton couldn’t lay his hands on that information from one source, he decided to compile one himself. To do it, he employed the skills learned in a sales career, leveraging social media as well as more analog strategies of working the phones and spreading the word among veterans that he knew.
“Most of the names I get are coming from the veterans themselves,” he said. “I talk to everybody. Are you a Searcy veteran? Are you a veteran? That’s all I do it seems like, all the time.”
The only two requirements that the list demands are that a person serve in the U.S. military and that they attended the Searcy school system. And because it’s a device of his own making, Morton has been known to let people in for special circumstances. This isn’t the military handbook, after all, and he considers the spirit of the enterprise more important than being a stickler for criteria.
“I take that guy at what he’s telling me,” he said. “Sometimes I will Google somebody’s name to see if he’s a veteran, but not really. If somebody tells me they are, I go ahead and put it in there. I got to thinking about it, and I just said well, this is my dadgum page! I like these guys!
“So, we have our old Searcy school superintendent listed, who did not go to Searcy High School, but he’s in there because of his military experience and because he was the superintendent of our school.”
Scrolling through the names, and in some cases photographs, of the SHSMV website and Facebook page gives one a sense of how deep the military service tradition runs in this White County community. Even so, Morton said, without a formal roll call, this important aspect of the city’s history is in danger of being lost to time and memory.
“We’ve got some Arkansas Army Hall of Fame members who went to school at Searcy,” he said. “We’ve had some POWs who got killed in action. There was one guy in town who’s a high school friend of mine. He’s an attorney. I was talking to him years ago and he said, ‘Man, I didn’t serve, but my dad was in World War II. Can you put his name in there?’ Yeah, he went to Searcy High School. So, I got a WWII pilot in there, more than one.
“Every town has a history. Every county has a history. Every state has a history. I just thought it would be unique to see what my hometown had as their military history.”