Cancer survivor turns hobby into full-time job

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ST. FLORIAN, Ala. (AP) — Ralph Richey said anyone who can look at a plain piece of wood, visualize a design and then carve it out of the wood has a remarkable talent.

And when Richey saw some of the hand-carved items Mike Morris had on display at the annual Octoberfest, he knew Morris had a gift.

"It was obvious, from seeing what he had, the man has talent," Richey, the town's police chief, said.

Morris didn't get involved in wood carving by choice, but as a way to relieve stress, and he didn't start carving until last year.

"I was cutting and carving on small sticks I was getting from trees," said Morris, who lives in the Happy Hollow community, just north of St. Florian. "I did it to relieve the stress and just have something to do."

Morris, whose business is in the side of the Happy Hollow Market, is a cancer survivor.

He was diagnosed with stage four non Hodgkins Lymphoma in March 2008.

As he battled cancer, he had 360 chemo treatments, a stem cell transplant and a month of radiation.

"And I've been cancer free now for five years," said Morris, who moved back to the area about three years go.

The treatments helped, but they also took a toll on his body.

"All of the nerve endings on my hands and feet were burned from the chemo treatments and the radiation," he said. "No one thought I would ever be able to use my hands. The whittling was spiritual therapy and physical therapy."

Morris, who is part Native American, continued to whittle even after he went back to work.

"The very first thing I did was a totem spirit horse for a friend whose horse had died," Morris said. "I looked at it and thought it was pretty good because it was from the heart.

Everyone who saw it liked what I did, and I've never stopped."

After working in different jobs from an insurance adjuster to a transportation company terminal services director, he decided to try making a living as a wood carver.

"I took it one carving at a time, and I kept learning, and honestly, I couldn't put it down," Morris said. "I started this and my wife, got sick and is in a wheelchair. She took care of me while I was sick. Now I'm taking care of her, and the carving allows me to care for her."

Morris uses chain saws and wood chisels to sculpt his creations.

"He's a pretty amazing fellow," said Pattie Bryan, owner of the Mercantile Picker in St. Florian. "I've stopped by, talked with him, heard his story and seen his work, and he does good work."

One project for a special Christmas present was making a totem pole out of a walnut tree for an 84-year-old man's birthday.

"The man had five children, and he had to relocate and lives with one of his daughters in Florence," Morris said. "They saw me at Octoberfest and the woman told me that her father was part Cherokee Indian and when he moved, the walnut tree had been in his front yard and he had always wanted a totem pole out of it.

"So, I made him a totem pole, 14-18 inches round, 12 feet long."

Morris inserted hand-carved masks up and down the pole, and at the top he carved a horse.

He's now carving an Indian maiden whistling, with an eagle wrapping its wings around the maiden, which will go on property along Shoal Creek. This creation will be carved out of a 107-year-old cedar tree.

"When I start carving I can see the finished product, and I just want to keep going until it's completed," Morris said. "I never thought I would be doing something like this with my life.

"Evidently it's never too old to start a new profession. I'm 40 years old and I did. I never thought I would be carving for a living. But I guess I have finally found my niche in life."

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Information from: TimesDaily, http://www.timesdaily.com/

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