art of a panel at the visitors’ center shows William Morrissey exploring the cave.  Photos BY GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/Spring valley tribune
art of a panel at the visitors’ center shows William Morrissey exploring the cave. Photos BY GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/Spring valley tribune

"That was his essence...finding common ground to get the work done for nature," said Forestville-Mystery Cave State Park Manager Mark White, speaking Saturday, Aug. 17, of the late William H. Morrissey, who helped establish the formerly privately owned Mystery Cave as part of Forestville State Park.

Morrissey, a former Minnesota state park director, died in 2011, but his legacy remains in southeast Minnesota, and those who remember him and his work shared exactly how passionate he was about it during a special rededication ceremony of the visitor center in his name at Mystery Cave. The visitor center is now the William H. Morrissey Visitor Center, and a new exhibit with photos of Morrissey and his beloved cave and a bag of "caving food," Cheetos, is inside the center.

Morrissey, better known as "Bill" than "William," served in the Utah state park system before coming home again to Minnesota's system for the rest of his career. According to Minnesota State Parks and Trails Director Courtland Nelson, Morrissey graduated from Creighton College, then attended Minnesota's College of Natural Resources, taking several different roles within the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), including becoming the southeastern Minnesota regional coordinator in Rochester. He left the state to work in other states' systems, then returned to be director of Minnesota state parks for 16 years, receiving the University of Minnesota's Lifetime Achievement Award for his dedication to the preservation of the state's natural resources, including the cave and its surrounding environment.

White told how "the addition of the cave was such a huge change for us,'s such a remarkable place with its karst topography...there's no other place like it in Minnesota. Twenty-five years ago, we did the first dedication of the cave, after a very arduous acquisition process, something very challenging and difficult that only happened because of Bill's skills. He took immediate interest in it and set about learning from people who live in the area...he set things in motion - economic, farming, local government - he coalesced all those interests into the acquisition of the cave.

"Bill recognized that the cave had to be preserved. He established the first cave specialist because he understood that there was cave science, that it needed management, lighting, reestablishing floor grades, and sustainability. For Bill, seeing the protection and management of the cave was very important. And in 2004, we finished this beautiful building - he thought it was important to tell the story about how important and fragile it is."

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr spoke next, noting, "I'm honored to be here to recognize this huge legacy. Everybody knows and appreciates Bill's legacy, not by virtue of his being a grandstanding person, but by the works. Because of his dedication, there are eight additional units and 46,000 acres, but he was very humble. A lot of people worked under him, and he would say that it wasn't his work, but theirs. He no doubt brought people together. He was under-spoken - he really wanted to serve. He got the public's attention by virtue of what he did, and he also had tremendous vision. If it were Bill's druthers, he'd have a state park within 50 miles of every Minnesotan because he recognized that not everybody would be able to buy their own piece of land."

Local caving enthusiast Roger Kehret told how Morrissey made contacts with cavers during the addition of the cave to Forestville. "The cave was unprotected - people were breaking in and taking formations - so it needed protection. There were lots of meetings during the acquisition, but Bill helped set concerns aside. I remember him as a runner, but he could get other people to run with him."

Morrissey's sister, Megan, one of five, represented the Morrissey family - who enjoyed a private cave tour, a reception and activities throughout the day - and spoke about how her brother was deliberate in his actions.

"I want to thank everyone here today, because I know it was hard work pulling this together," she said. "Whenever I'd go camping in Minnesota state parks, I'd call my brother first and he'd recommend a campsite. His recommendations were always spot-on, and he always used to speak highly of this park."

She introduced the members of the Morrissey family, adding, "With a person like Bill, it was hard to know where to draw the line...who is family? His circle of family went much farther than just the people he was related to - it was the people he met while working for the parks and the people he met in the parks. He included everyone he encountered as part of the DNR and state parks."

She related that White had visited Bill during one of his days battling cancer, and she eavesdropped long enough to learn that "Theirs was a painstaking positive collaboration...they understood what resulted from their work would be better for all included...while I was eavesdropping, I learned that it is important work, moral work."

Nelson and DNR staff shared a slideshow of Morrissey's travels to state parks across the nation following his retirement, and dedication program attendees enjoyed refreshments following the program, provided by the Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota.