As Mike Morrison made his way to the dais Friday afternoon, his fellow Maine game wardens rose as one to salute him as the state’s warden of the year.
All Morrison, a 58-year-old warden’s son who grew up hoping to become a warden himself, could do was shake his head.
When asked to say a few words to his colleagues after accepting the award, Morrison tried. Then he choked back tears and apologized to his friends, co-workers and family.
“I don’t think I can,” he said, still shaking his head.
A few minutes later, after the official ceremony had broken up and as Morrison received repeated congratulatory handshakes from his peers, he reflected on the honor.
“It’s just one of those things. I couldn’t do it without everyone else,” Morrison said. “There’s a lot more deserving people in the room than I am. I figured that guys I work with every day ought to get it. I just do what I’ve got to do. I love every one of these guys.”
Morrison was among the award recipients during an annual warden service recognition banquet held at the Black Bear Inn in Orono.
This year’s ceremony was a special one for the Maine Warden Service, which celebrated its 130th anniversary last week.
“We’re 130 years old, and I tell everybody, I only missed the first 97 of ‘em,” Morrison said.
Morrison’s father, Gray Morrison, was a game warden from 1954 until 1981, and Mike Morrison began working as a warden in 1977.
“I don’t have any idea when I’m going to retire,” Mike Morrison said with a chuckle.
Morrison said he’s been living a childhood dream during his 33 years in the warden service.
“Probably when I was about 10 years old I knew I wanted to be a game warden,” Morrison said. “I thought about the state police, but my heart was always in the warden service. I used to ride with my dad every time I got a chance, spent as much time as I could working with him or riding with him.”
Gray Morrison retired as a lieutenant working out of Greenville, and was present Friday to watch his son receive the award.
Warden Jim Fahey said when the warden of the year is announced, fellow wardens always pay close attention and show their respect for the winner. But he said in some years, there’s a near-unanimous approval of the selection that becomes readily apparent.
That was the case this year, no matter what Morrison might have thought.
“The wardens in the room, each year, when that announcement is made, there’s often-times, with particular recipients, like Mike, where there’s an extra murmur in the crowd,” Fahey said. “You can almost sense it: ‘All right. Good for him. He had it coming.’ I think it’s always special, but if you sensed that, you were right. There was a buzz in the room and I think people were pleased.”
Morrison has patrolled the Charleston area for most of his career, and Warden Sgt. Bill Chandler, who read the nomination to the crowd Friday, said Morrison’s ties to the community — and the respect he has earned from those on both sides of the law — are among the reasons he’s successful.
“During a recent fall, Mike had received some information about some illegal deer kills,” Chandler said. “Mike went to the suspected violator’s residence and spoke with the suspect. ‘You know why I’m here.’ The violator hung his head and told Mike that the deer were in the barn.”
Other award recipients at Friday’s ceremony:
— Colonel’s Award, to retired resident agent in charge Christopher Dowd of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for his support and service to the Maine Warden Service during his tenure.
“RAC Dowd’s commitment to assisting the Maine Warden Service has led to the successful apprehension of numerous individuals who have intentionally violated our state fish and wildlife statutes,” said Maine’s chief warden, Col. Joel Wilkinson.
— Supervisor of the Year, to Sgt. Mark Warren of Edgecomb, for his expertise in field management and instruction at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.
“One of Sgt. Warren’s strongest attributes is his ability to gain the trust and respect of the wardens he supervises,” said Warden Doug Kulis, who nominated Warren for the award. “Sgt. Warren has been up front and honest, and he gives praise when it is deserved and constructive criticism when necessary.”
— Meritorious Service Award, to Warden Bruce Loring of Enfield for his efforts to rescue two men who were caught in a snowstorm and stuck in a pickup truck in a remote area off the Stud Mill Road.
Loring covered more than 40 miles by snowmobile, during a whiteout, to shuttle the men and a dog to safety.
“Warden Loring displayed the courage and perseverance under dire circumstances that Maine game wardens are known for,” Chandler said.
— Exemplary Service Award, to Game Warden Pilot Daryl Gordon of Eagle Lake, for air patrols that help direct wardens toward possible violators of the state’s fish and game laws.
“He few over 10 details, resulting in at least 13 cases, which could not have been made without his assistance,” Sgt. Brian Gray said.
— Exemplary Service Award, to Warden Eric Blanchard, for his persistence in apprehending a convicted felon who had been hunting without a license.
“Warden Blanchard’s effort in this case demonstrates an above-average technical knowledge of the law, ability to work with other agencies, and commitment to get the job done,” Sgt. Tim Spahr said.
— Exemplary Service Award, to Warden Doug Kulis of Georgetown, for distinguished service in his coastal Maine district.
“Warden Kulis has the discretion of a seasoned officer and understands the value of summonses versus warnings, and has earned the respect of the hunting community and the department as a result,” said Warren.
— K-9 Conservation Case of the Year, to Warden Paul Farrington and his dog, Koda, of Springfield, for their recovery of key evidence that was found under four inches of snow.
— Maine Warden Service Association Legendary Game Warden, to retired Warden Donald Gray, who served the warden service for more than 40 years.
Gray was a founder of the Maine Warden Service Search and Rescue Team in the wake of two hikers dying on Mount Katahdin in 1962.
— Lifetime Distinguished Service Award, to retired Warden Larry Grant, who was instrumental in the formation of the Maine Warden Service Color Guard and the creation of the Legendary Game Warden Award.