Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Potomac man sees stories in postage stamps

Gordon Morison oversaw U.S. stamp program for two decades

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Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
Potomac resident Gordon Morison, former Assistant Postmaster General, first became interested in stamp collecting as a teenager.
Potomac resident Gordon Morison likes to say that stamps tell a story.

Morison, 77, was responsible for the U.S. Postal Service’s stamp program for more than 20 years, from 1971-92. He has overseen developments in the stamp world ranging from the advent of the self-stick stamp to the development of the famed Elvis stamp. But for Morison, stamps aren’t only a way of sending a letter — or a bill — they’re also a way of looking at changing historic and social times.

‘‘Stamps are about our history, our diversity and what makes America great,” Morison told members of the Potomac Rotary Club at a meeting March 26.

Take the popular ‘‘Love” stamp. What may seem like a benign greeting to a 21st century letter-mailer sparked a controversy amid the turbulent times of the 1970s, Morison recalled. The 1973 version of the ‘‘Love” stamp, inspired by Robert Indiana’s famous sculpture that now sits in Philadelphia, sparked an uproar when hundreds of citizens wrote in complaining that the stamp promoted free love, Morison said.

One woman even wrote in complaining that the hollow of the ‘‘O” resembled a birth control pill, Morison said.

These days, Morison said, stamps are less controversial, but they do reflect American’s interests: The most popular stamps include pop culture, entertainment and movies.

Morison first became interested in stamps as a teenager. The last woman on his newspaper delivery route was an avid stamp collector and inspired him to get involved, he said.

‘‘She dragged me in to see her collection, and the next thing you know I was spending my allowance on stamps,” Morison said.

The hobby would lead him to his position at the United States Postal Service, and eventually, the position of Assistant Post Master General in 1978.

Stamp sales rake in an average of $12 billion per year, according to David Failor, the executive director of stamp services for the United States Postal Service. While first-class sales are declining due to the popularity of e-mail and online bill pay, sales to stamp collectors are on the rise — cashing in about $200 million to $250 million a year.

‘‘It’s a very significant amount of money,” Failor said.

Stamp enthusiasts also play a part in pitching ideas that eventually become commemorative stamps, Failor said. Each year, the U.S. Postal Service fields about 50,000 stamp pitches from citizens who want to see their idea become a stamp.

A Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee, made up of 15 members, helps whittle the requests down to about 20-25 new stamps each year.

‘‘When you think of all the things we can put on stamps, it’s still a big deal to get chosen,” Failor said.

Stamps that were left on the cutting room floor during his tenure, recalls Morison, included a stamp that would commemorate ‘‘Whooda Tom,” a champion hog caller, a cream cheese commemorative stamp and a stamp featuring the headline ‘The American Taxpayer — an endangered species’.”

The committee sticks to a strict set of criteria when judging which ideas may become stamps. During Morison’s tenure, a person needed to have been dead for at least 10 years before being considered to appear on a stamp.

The rule was recently changed to five years, Failor said, in part because of an effort to incorporate more contemporary figures into the stamp world.

In one of Morison’s last duties with the postal service, he helped launch a series of stamps that featured musicians, deceased, of course. This incited a few laughs during the development of the Elvis stamp, Morison said.

‘‘We couldn’t prove he was actually dead,” Morison said. ‘‘He kept popping up in malls all over the country.”

Morison continues to collect stamps, which was also a favorite hobby of his late wife, Mary. Some, Morison said – such as one of his favorites, a series of five stamps that display the preamble to the U.S. Constitution – are artistic creations.

‘‘These stamps are beautiful works of art in and of themselves,” Morison said.