All friendships have their ups and downs, and for some, that phrase has a more literal meaning.
As the campus and community will gather Friday for the inauguration of Delta State University President William N. Laforge, the new leader will be celebrating the presence of one of his dearest friends and colleagues — James W. Morhard.
Morhard’s attendance marks more than just a friendship between the two. It also represents a celebration of life. On Aug. 9, 2010, Morhard survived an experience that sent shockwaves across America.
At the time, LaForge and Morhard had been friends for almost 25 years after meeting on Capitol Hill in the 1980s. They first met on an international staff trip to China when they were both working for different senators. The two have remained great personal friends ever since and have travel abroad together for numerous work trips.
LaForge recalls their time together fondly, saying, “He’s my best friend in Washington, which is a special thing in the capital. The mantra is, if you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog.”
Like LaForge, Morhard made quite a name for himself in D.C. In 2003, he became the chief of staff of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he managed a staff of 68 and assembled, personally negotiated, and passed the fiscal year 2004-2005 Omnibus appropriations bills.
When U.S. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska became chairman of the committee, Morhard was elevated to full committee staff director. It was in this position that he is credited with being a loyal sidekick to Sen. Stevens.
Morhard left the Senate in the winter of 2005 and founded the law firm of Morhard & Associates, LLC, but he continued to maintain a professional relationship with Stevens, someone he credits as a political mentor.
Both of their lives changed forever that tragic day in 2010 when Morhard, Stevens and a handful of friends were en route to a private fishing lodge in Alaska for a recreational trip. At around 2:30 p.m., the tiny 1957-model amphibious Otter plane they were flying crashed on a mountainside outside Aleknagik, Alaska.
Stevens was one of five pronounced dead, while Morhard was one of four survivors.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to the accident scene to investigate the cause of the crash and returned with an inconclusive report. There is speculation that the pilot, a recovered stroke victim, may have fallen asleep or had a seizure, but there was no direct evidence to support these theories.
Whatever the cause, a higher power saw to it that Morhard would survive the catastrophe and live to tell the world about it.
“There were many takeaways from the experience — to go through something that should never happen to anyone,” said Morhard. “It took the rescue crews over 17 hours to find us and get us out.
“That’s when you realize there is a plan, but not your plan. These lives of ours — we take them for granted. Life can end so quickly for any of us.”
In conjunction with LaForge’s inauguration week, the president asked his old friend to come to Delta State for the first time and present as a University Colloquia program speaker on Wednesday at 5 p.m. in the auditorium of E.R. Jobe Hall.
In a separate talk on Thursday at 2 p.m., also in the auditorium of Jobe, Morhard will go into further detail about surviving the crash.
“All of this certainly gives me an appreciation for life,” said Morhard. “What’s difficult is trying to articulate this to people. By discussing the crash, I hope that people get a better appreciation for their own life.”
LaForge, who was one of the first people to reach out to the Morhard family after the crash, is honored to hear his companion speak to the university community during inauguration activities. He still vividly remembers hearing the shocking news of the crash for the first time, the morning after it happened.
“The story is all about him, not about me — but I can tell you as a friend, my reaction that day was one of horror and loss,” said LaForge. “At first, we didn’t know any of the details. Nobody knew if there were any survivors. All we knew is there had been a plane crash and usually you don’t think there are survivors.
“When we learned that Jim was one of the survivors, it was one of those moments where you want to be very emotional, but you can’t because you’ve embraced all day for terrible news. Then all of a sudden when we heard he was okay, it was a huge relief. We were double shocked — shocked by the accident and shocked he was okay.”
Having never faced a situation like this before, LaForge emotionally recalls a special memory following the news.
“In an impulsive moment I just picked up my cell phone, called him and left him a message,” said LaForge. “And I just said ‘I hope you gets this.’ A few days later, after we found out he was a survivor, he called me. He said he got the message and that has always hit home.”
Morhard credits LaForge for being one of his biggest supporters following the accident, which left him in poor physical condition. Among his injuries included 16 broken ribs, a broken arm, shattered wrist, collapsed lung, and neck and upper back damage.
“He called me as soon as he could and he’s been very supportive through all of this. He came to visit me when I first returned to Washington and also a few times when I was in therapy,” said Morhard. “He’s always been by my side.
“He showed me what real friends are. When you find someone you really admire, you keep them close. People like that are few and far between — and Bill LaForge is one of those people.”
The mutual respect they have for one another runs deep, and to this day they make an effort to spend time together whenever possible, even though LaForge has left Washington and returned to his Delta roots.
“I’m really looking forward to coming to Delta State for the first time to see Bill apply himself in the place he cherishes,” said Morhard. “So few people have what he has to offer.
“I know that he has already hit the ground running and I’m sure that people are finding it hard trying to keep up with him.”
President LaForge anxiously awaits to present Morhard while he shares his remarkable story.
“It means everything for him to come here during inauguration,” said LaForge. “He’s coming here as a friend, and for him to be a part of this special week is just a grand and joyous occasion.
“I appreciate him coming to bring the good word and share in the festivities. I think he’ll find Delta State a very warm and welcoming place for him and he’ll feel right at home here.”