The Early Years

The town of St. Johns, Arizona, where Morris "Mo" K. Udall grew up, was so small that Mo later joked he was in the fifth grade before he realized the name of the town wasn't "Resume Speed." David King Udall, Mo's grandfather, had founded St. Johns in 1880, leading a small band of Mormon settlers from Kanab, Utah. He later served in the Senate of the Twentieth Territorial Legislature.

Mo's father Levi Stewart Udall worked the farm and in the family store. He studied law by correspondence, later serving as county attorney and superior court judge. In 1946, Levi Udall was elected to the Arizona Supreme Court, where he wrote the 1948 opinion that gave Arizona Indians the right to vote. Years later, Mo's brother Stewart was asked how he got his start in politics. As he tells it, both he and Mo were influenced by their father's philosophy that "if good men don't run for office and try to make things go, the bad men will." Stewart recalled that his father "never called it politics; he called it public service."

When Mo was born in 1922, life in St. Johns was more 19th than 20th Century. His brother Burr remembers the morning routine: "You made sure the fire was going, milked the cow, and slopped the pig, got the wood, and all that stuff." Working the land instilled an environmental ethic -- "You had to work with nature," Burr said. Although farm chores and lessons absorbed most of the day, Mo's sister Elma recalls a sense of limitless possibilities: "The world was ours. We walked out the door and there it was."

At age 6 Mo lost his right eye, punctured by a playmate's pocket knife as Mo held the string for him to cut. His glass eye and lanky, 6'5" frame made him self-conscious as a teen, but he threw himself into school activities. As a high school student, he played football, basketball, acted in school plays, led the dance band, and wrote for the student paper.

Mo attended the University of Arizona, majoring in pre-law. He played Wildcat basketball and worked in the school infirmary. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he tried to enlist, but was rejected because of his glass eye. A year later he was drafted, entering the Army as a private. After several months, he was accepted for officer candidate school, becoming a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps following graduation. After serving in the Pacific Theater, he was discharged with the rank of captain.

Returning to the University of Arizona in 1946 to earn his law degree, Mo also went back to basketball. At the last game of the 1946-47 season against the University of New Mexico, Mo recalled, "I had one of those games you dream about. Everything I tossed up went in. With two minutes to play and twenty-four points to my credit, the coach took me out to a standing ovation. Our bench was right under the press table and an Albuquerque sportswriter leaned over and said, 'Udall, you are a liar. No one shoots like that with a glass eye.' I plucked the slippery orb out of its socket and handed it to him, saying, 'Mister, I haven't been able to see much out of this one, you try it.'"

He was six units shy of his degree when the Denver Nuggets, of the old National Basketball League and in Mo's words, one of the worst professional basketball teams ever, came recruiting. Mo played for a year, during which the Nuggets set a league record by losing 15 consecutive games, while finishing his law studies.

In 1949, Mo joined his brother Stewart practicing law in Tucson. He was elected county attorney in 1952, and in 1954 considered a run for Arizona's 2nd congressional seat. Stewart ran for and won the seat instead; Mo ran for a judgeship and lost, returning to private law practice. In 1960 Mo published his first book, the Arizona Law of Evidence, referred to as the Arizona trial lawyers' bible (a revised edition is still in use today). When Stewart was appointed Secretary of Interior by the Kennedy administration in 1961, Mo ran for his seat in a special election and won. He was on his way to Washington.

Morris K. Udall

"Born in a desert hamlet, Mo Udall came to Washington wearing funny suits and cowboy boots. Having lost bids to become Speaker and then Majority Leader, he tried to lead the whole country - and lost again. His fate was simply to become one of the great lawmakers of our time."

James M. Perry, Audubon Magazine