Progressive Roots and a Budding Career
In the years of Morse's youth, Wisconsin stood at the epicenter of the progressive movement in America. Led by their pugnacious senator, Robert M. La Follette, Wisconsinites of all political stripes rallied around a program that overthrew the “unholy alliance” of machine politics and affluent business interests that controlled the statehouse in Madison and prevented the voice of the “average citizen” from being heard. This strain of progressivism, the belief that government should work and fight for what is good, right, and fair for all people, would stay with Morse throughout his public life. He may have also inherited from “Fighting Bob" La Follette his independent streak that would be the hallmark of Morse's days in the US Senate.
He escaped the one-room schoolhouse that educated most denizens of rural Wisconsin by riding on horseback a 22-mile circuit from the Morse farm to Madison each day. In Madison, he was able to attend schools that prepared him for the rigors of the University of Wisconsin, one of the more prestigious colleges in the early twentieth century, which Morse attended from 1919 to 1924. It was at one of these Madison schools, Madison Central High, where he discovered two interests that remained with him throughout his life. One was a love for public speaking and debate that propelled him to a master's degree in speech and a life in politics. The other was his love for Mildred Martha Downie, “Midge” to those who knew her, who was his constant companion at Wisconsin and, after 1924, his wife for the rest of his days.
Shortly after their marriage, the newlyweds moved to Minneapolis, where Wayne had obtained a job as a speech instructor at the University of Minnesota. Morse quickly realized that the life of a low-paid speech instructor was not for him, and by 1928 he had earned a law degree in his “spare time,” all the while teaching a full load of classes and successfully coaching the debate team. After a nine-month sojourn to Columbia University to pick up an advanced doctorate of jurisprudence, he began casting about for a job teaching law. Because of his relative inexperience, Morse was not flooded with offers. One of the few schools willing to take a chance on him was a small school, well off the beaten path, the University of Oregon.
After two years as an Associate Professor, he was made dean of the Oregon law school, becoming the youngest in the country and bringing himself, and his university, widespread notice. The reports of his performance as a professor are mixed and Morse certainly spent more time involved in University politics than the classroom. His most famous foray into campus politics was his fight against the proposed merging of the University and Oregon State College. Decrying the plan as a “Rotten Plot,” he was instrumental in sinking the merger, and his name became known throughout the state.