La Verne’s patriot guard
Tim Morrison shows his true colors.
by Elsie Ramos
photography by Candice Salazar
Before the mile and half parade begins, men, women, children and war veterans bow their heads, say a prayer, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance, and end with a “Hoo-rah!” It is not the typical way to start a city parade, but it is when Tim Morrison is leading it. With his hands steady but his heart racing, Tim kick starts his 2005 Wild Glide Harley to life, and soon his engine beat is joined by the rumble of 70 more. “Get us fired up; we’re gonna roll in two,” he shouts. Tim, wearing his leather biker cut and an American flag bandana on his head, is leading the San Dimas Parade for the first time. His black Harley holds the biggest American flag—four feet by six feet; therefore, he rides in front. The bikes roll out of the parking lot, two at time, with “Wild Thing” blaring in the background.
Tim is not just a biker; he is a cowboy, a kayaker, a patriot and a University of La Verne alumnus. All those labels take a back seat to the one he finds most important: the label of being American. “The hat I like wearing the most is anything with the red, white and blue.”
He is the son of a Marine Sergeant who fought in WWII and a Lieutenant Navy nurse; his stepson Scott is serving in the Army and stationed in Washington. Tim’s dad was the beloved city of Claremont chief of police from 1958 to 1971 and designed the original police patch, which Tim wears on his biker vest. “I love my country and respect the armed forces, but I wish we’d just kick some ass and get the hell out of there,” Tim says. “They’re old enough to come home in body bags, but not old enough to have a drink.” Tim never served in the Armed Forces—the Vietnam war ended just before he became draft eligible. That was a war he says was more political than anything else. Even so, his father advised him to go to college first and then, if he still felt like he wanted to serve, to enlist afterwards. Regarding present day wars, he says, “If they would let me take the place of one of those 19-year-olds so he can come home, I would.”
His patriotism really kicked into gear in 2004 when he heard of an atheist’s petition to remove the phrase “one nation under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. Tim says that it bothered him that someone would want to change something that has been the same for so long. “A lot of people don’t have it in here [points to his chest] to respect and honor our flag.”
He enlists now in a different way, volunteering his time to honor those who have served. He gives some of his time to The Patriot Guard, an organization of motorcycle riders who lead funeral processions for veterans. Their mission, stated in their website, is to “show our sincere respect for our fallen heroes, their families and their communities, and to shield the mourning family and their friends from interruptions created by any protester or group of protesters.”
They help prevent hecklers, like those from the Westboro Baptist Church in Arkansas, who protest and interrupt the funerals of soldiers with derogatory language. “We’ll link arms and sing Yankee Doodle Dandy if we have to,” Tim says. “It usually doesn’t get that far. They see a bunch of motorcyclists, and they just turn around. I do what I can to honor all of our past, present and future heroes.” Tim has shepherded 12 funerals. At each one, he has been given a dog tag with the soldier’s name, age and Armed Forces branch of service. The dog tags hang on his outside front door porch hook—a place of honor at Tim’s house. The ages of the fallen soldiers range from teenagers to men and women in their 30s. Tim says that his most memorable experience as a Patriot Guard was when he helped take a fallen soldier out of a plane at Ontario International Airport. “To carry a casket, draped in our flag [his words are momentarily blocked by emotion; he takes a breath and continues]; carrying one of our own was an honor and a privilege that most citizens will never get to experience.” The first funeral procession he took part in also had a profound effect on him. “I wasn’t mentally prepared for what happens.” He says the emotion that is felt throughout the funeral is something that cannot be described.
Fourth of July rumble
Tim dedicates much planning time toward La Verne’s Fourth of July parade. When he first started volunteering, he helped organize the neighborhood floats. Six years ago, he went to Jeannette Vagnozzi, La Verne city treasurer and fellow parade volunteer, and asked her whether the organizers could somehow involve motorcycles. Jeannette says the first year they were able to recruit 51 Harleys, each sporting a different huge state flag. It was colorful and a talked-about entry. It was also doomed to be a one-time thing because the constant stopping, waiting and starting that comes with a parade was overheating the Harleys’ air-cooled engines. That is when Tim came up with the idea to have the motorcycles lead as a parade prelude. Before launching the parade, the riders gather for a patriotic presentation staged by La Verne’s children. Then, accompanied by a low flying Army Huey, Chinook or Black Hawk (Tim always delivers the near impossible), the Harleys, staged at Bonita High School, roar down D Street at slow speed, individual flags stiffened in their wake.
The parade’s start is an extraordinary tradition born in the mind of Tim Morrison, a person who always brings a high level of adventure to his ideas. “He brings such excitement to the committee,” Jeannette says. “It’s always a bigger and more exciting idea with Tim.” Since that first year, the Harley presence has increased from 51 bikes to more than 200. Each bike carries a state flag, an American flag or a flag from a different branch of the military. All flags range from four by six to three by five feet. The riders come from throughout the Western states with their own flags or flags that Tim provides. “He has an excitement and a zeal. He thinks about it all year long,” Jeannette says. “He’s very dedicated to our military and our country and has become a staple in our community. He’s very, very passionate about national pride, and the flag means a lot to him.”
Tim says that the parade has gained so much recognition throughout the biker community that riders have to be turned away. The parade has a limit of 200 bikes, but Tim says if he could he would have 2,000. “Word just gets out. I can’t say ‘no’ to anybody, and if I have to take myself out of it I will. I can have just as much fun in my front yard with Sharon [his wife]. I know what I’ve done.”
Tim does not just have adventures on two wheels; he also has them on the rapids. His passion for saddling up in his kayak and riding America’s wildest rivers began at the University of La Verne. As an undergraduate, he enrolled in a beginner’s watercraft class at La Verne with legendary Coach Roland “Ort” Ortmayer as his instructor. Tim immediately excelled. When Ort saw his potential, he told him to pursue kayaking further. “He told me that he had done all he could for me, and that I should find someone with more expertise,” Tim says. That is when he met International Whitewater Hall of Famer Tom Johnson at Kernville, Calif., and began competing nationally at a high level. Tim says he lived out of a tent and would go out every day to train, even in the winter. He competed from Wisconsin to Montana to Oregon. In his first race in the expert class, Tim finished in the top 10 with his parents there to watch. Tim says he had dreams of going to the Olympics and came very close, but things just never panned out for him. Later, he became a professional master river guide for Orange Torpedo Trips, specializing in the Salmon River.
Tim’s list of recreational accomplishments doesn’t end with kayaking, as he placed second in the Yellowstone Triathlon; a mere 18 seconds out of first place. The triathlon includes running, biking and kayaking. And even though it is not current, Tim earned an instrument flight rules (IFR) private pilot’s license. In all he does, he is very competitive. When his step-son’s friends challenged him to a biking race in the local mountains, he beat them by several minutes. “Scott warned them not to tempt me,” he says. “At 56, I can still hold my own.”
His fondest recreational interest is the rodeo. He finds it to be the most American. Most boys dream of wearing the cowboy hat and roping cattle, and that’s exactly what Tim does as an adult. “I think cowboy is definitely the most American hat you can wear,“ he says. In 1995, he roped his first steer on his first horse, Dynamite. He has had two other horses since then, Rusty and Alice, the latter named after his mother. For Tim, being a cowboy doesn’t mean just roping cattle, it also means teaching a dance class. The city of La Verne asked him to help teach a tap dancing class, and Tim agreed. He incorporated roping into the girls dance. Hanging from a frame in his garage is a hand written note of gratitude from the girls that reads, “You roped your way into our hearts. Thanks for your time and patience.”
Tim’s days at the University of La Verne were full of adventures and practical jokes. When construction cones were found at the top of the Dailey Theatre, everyone looked at him. “Administration came up to me and said, ‘We’re not accusing you, but if anyone knows how to get them down, we know you do,’” Tim recalls. Taking advantage of independent study opportunities, he would make up his own classes and go out into the wilderness for weeks at a time and gain academic credit. He earned his pilot’s license while taking a La Verne independent study “Theory and Practice of Aviation” class. His University of La Verne studies culminated with a master’s of arts teaching degree.
His greatest influences at La Verne to be Coach Ortmayer. “He was my coach, mentor, teacher and friend. Ort let me be me. He saved me from myself.” Ort encouraged Tim to take classes that would develop character, not just make him a smarter person. He says that part of his wanting to honor war veterans came from values Ortmayer taught him. “He always told me that the time to honor people is when they’re here, not when they’re gone. That’s where part of my drive to help people comes from.”
When he is not engaged in an adventure, Tim spends his time at home with his wife of 13 years and their handful of animals. He proposed to his wife in an unconventional but thoughtful way. He put together a photo album of all the adventures they had together and with friends. He showed her that he may not have all the riches in the world but no one was going to make her happier than he would. At the end of the photo album was an indent where he placed the ring, with a handwritten phrase above it: “Here’s your ring; will you marry me?” “I wouldn’t believe anything he says,” Sharon shouts from the laundry room. “If that’s not confidence then I don’t know what is,” Tim says.
His house and yard are a great representation of himself—patriotic and eccentric. Just beyond the red and blue hand printed white picket fence, Rosie, the life-size plastic cow stands prominently in the front yard garden. Wind chimes hang on the front and back yard porches, the latter of which Tim constructed. In the backyard, under an orange tree and in a kiddy pool, is a plastic, camouflage painted, Army-hat-wearing brontosaurus. Fifty-one state flags are rolled up and stacked against the garage. His yard becomes a theme park exhibition for the holidays. At Christmas, a full size sled with Santa is strung from the Third Street deodar trees. At Halloween, he matches the over the top zaniness of his Third Street neighbors. But it is on the Fourth of July and Veterans Day when Tim’s front yard has no equal. His 50 state flags plus special flags commemorating 911, along with the patriotic display of a huge American flag, have won the Fourth of July decorating award many times. He has received many plaques and awards over the years, including a 2007 city of La Verne proclamation honoring his valuable civic contributions. The La Verne City Council, in a special Feb. 6, 2012, ceremony, presented Tim with its Jack Huntington “Pride of La Verne“ award. His mother Alice and sister Kathleen were proudly at his side.
Despite earning the highest respect from city leadership, Tim says that’s not what gets him up in the morning. “Getting a certificate is cool, but it’s not what motivates me. I do all that I do because that’s just who Tim is.”
Patriotism on display
Known for exhibiting the best decorated house in La Verne for several years running during the Fourth of July city contest, Tim Morrison’s front yard never falls short of entertainment during all holidays. For significant patriotic events, large 50 state and American flags are posted around the perimeter of his yard. A white picket fence is covered with red and blue children’s handprints. A 20-foot flag pole holds court front and center. Tim’s friends often give him eccentric pieces for his collection. One such gift, a lifesize plastic cow, perpetually resides on his front lawn.