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With his connections to the area, many in Shelby County have a story to share about an encounter with the colorful Col. Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
But how many of them got to ride in his famed white Cadillac limousine?
How many got to have dinner with him on a regular basis?
How many could call him a family friend?
And how many could say he gave them one of his famous white suits, complete with black bolo tie, for a Halloween party?
And even more, how many could say the Colonel lived in his home?
“It’s a crazy story, and you probably won’t believe it when I tell you,” said Mike Morris, who can answer yes to each of those questions.
While reminiscing Morris’ story becomes more and more amazing and incredible with time. Including how he came to own one of Col. Sanders’ suits.
Morris had no idea at the time, but that simple gesture from the Colonel could end up being worth more than $50,000.
Morris, who grew up in Shelby County and graduated from Shelby County High School, now lives in the Cincinnati area and is preparing to auction off that original Col. Harland Sanders suit, with the Colonel’s handmade suit tag in the back.
But to get to that point, you must hear the story from the beginning.
When Morris was in his early teens, his family built a new house on a little more than 30 acres on La Grange Road, at the intersection with Fox Run Road.
Morris recalls vividly an evening, not long after the family had moved into that new home, when a white Cadillac limousine pulled down the driveway.
“If you can believe it, we were actually having Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner, and I was taking the bones out to the trash,” Morris said. “And up the driveway comes this white Cadillac, like nothing I’ve ever seen. So, I’m just about thirteen years old, so I run inside.”
At that point, Morris said it was almost surreal.
“The limo stops, the driver gets out, opens the doors and out gets Col. Sanders – white suit, white hair, black cane, everything, just like he looked on TV at the time,” he said. “He gets out, stands by the car and looks around for a few seconds and then gets back in the car, and they leave.”
At that point, Morris said, the family is confused at the unannounced visit, but little did they know their time with the Colonel was just beginning.
An unusual meeting
“Then, a few days later, my dad gets a call, and it was Col. Sanders,” Morris said. “He tells dad that he was recently at our home and said he and his wife were looking at moving back out to the country.
“He said, ‘I love your house, the way it’s set up, the way it looks and everything. I want to buy your house.’
“Well, we had only been living there for about six months, and it was brand new. So my dad tells him it’s not for sale.”
But, Morris said, Col. Sanders wasn’t taking no for an answer.
“He was just adamant about buying the house,” he said. “So my dad finally just invites him out to the house to look around but still tells him that it’s not for sale.”
A few days later, Morris said, the white Cadillac is coming back down the driveway, and Col. Harland Sanders along with wife, Claudia, are back at the house.
“Dad takes him around the house, shows him everything, he meets everyone, but then dad tells him again that the house isn’t for sale,” Morris said. “But the Colonel still wants it, and just asks how much for it.
“They go in the other room for a while, and the next thing I know, they come out, and the Colonel has bought our house.”
A house guest
At the time, the Sanders were living in Louisville, and Morris said his family thought they’d have enough time either to build or to buy another home. But where?
“Throughout the entire process, the Colonel kept saying how much he liked our family and how much he enjoyed being around us,” he said. “So, after the sale, he approached my father and said, ‘How about if I sell you two acres back, and you can build right next to us?’ So that’s what he did.”
And then, when Col. Sanders’ home in Louisville sold much faster than expected, the families got even closer.
“So he calls my dad and says, ‘I’ve got a problem. My house in Louisville has sold, and I have nowhere to go. I didn’t expect it to sell that fast. How about we live in your basement while you build your new house?”
So, for about six months in the summer of 1975, Morris and his family shared a home with the famous Col. Sanders and his wife.
“It was crazy really,” he said. “My sister and I had our bedrooms downstairs, and there was just this one wall between our bedrooms and their living quarters.”
After about six months of living together, the two families became close, and Morris said Col. Sanders and his wife were two of the nicest people you could meet.
“We were around each other all the time, even after we moved,” he said. “He was such a generous and giving man. We’d go out to dinner together, and he had these cards with his picture on them that he’d give out to people with his autographs. We’d go, and he’d sit with kids and people that wanted his autograph for an hour and just tell us to go ahead and eat. He was so giving with his time.”
And Col. Sanders didn’t have extravagant tastes, despite his fortune made from selling the chicken chain.
“One of his favorite places to go was KingFish down on Zorn Avenue,” Morris said. “We’d go there all the time.”
And they always took Col. Sanders’ white limousine.
“Dick Miller, his chauffeur, went everywhere with him,” he said. “If he flew somewhere, Dick went with him, and sometimes we’d drive the limo down to meet them at the airport.”
“How the suit came about goes back to a Halloween party I went to in high school,” Morris said. “I was in the band at Shelby County High School, and we were having a party. I told my dad I thought I wanted to dress up as the Colonel for the party, and he said, ‘Well, go ask him.’
“Well, he [Sanders] just thought that was great. He got me a suit and a tie and even let me use a cane.”
So after he was dressed in the “costume,” Morris went next door to show the Colonel his look.
“He loved it,” he said. “Then, he said, ‘You know what would make this great? How about I have Dick drive you to the party, walk you in and stay there and bring you home?’
“I couldn’t believe it.”
And Miller was just as into it as Col. Sanders.
“We’re leaving, and Dick asks me if I want to have some fun,” Morris said. “So we drive up to the McDonald’s, and he gets me to put my arm out the window and wave to everybody. Of course, they thought I was the Colonel.”
After the party, Morris said he went to take the suit back, and the Colonel wouldn’t take it.
“He said, ‘You looked so good in that suit, you just keep it,’” Morris said. “He just appreciated me doing that so much.”
Selling the suit
About four years ago Morris was back at his parents’ place, still that second new home on LaGrange Road, after his father had passed away.
“We were clearing out some things with my mom, and we came across the suit,” he said. “She told me to take it, since I had worn it and the Colonel enjoyed it so much.”
After Morris took the suit home in Cincinnati, he heard PBS’ Antique Road Show was coming to the area. The show creates a huge public event at which people take items they think have collectible value to be evaluated. Some of the more unusual or expensive items are chosen to be shown on the air. Morris decided to see what the suit might be worth.
And much like the lucky circumstances that brought Col. Sanders to his childhood home, Morris ended up with one of the hard-to-get tickets for the show.
“They only give out about thirty-six hundred tickets, and more than thirty-seven thousand people applied,” he said. “I didn’t get one.”
But someone else he knew had won a ticket, and, after hearing the story about the suit, that person offered to let Morris have his ticket.
Waiting for hours in line with others to have their antiques valued, Morris was spotted by producers.
“Once they saw the suit and the photos of me dressed up like the Colonel, they wanted to put me on TV,” he said. “So we moved to a different area to be filmed.”
Morris said of the roughly 4,000 that get tickets to the show, producers only pick between 20 and 40 to be filmed.
At that time, appraiser Cathleen Guzman, from Heritage Auction House, which has offices in Dallas, New York and San Francisco as well as other cities, was wowed by the suit and noted its tag in the back indicating it was tailor made for Col. Sanders and included his name.
“It worked out really well for me,” Morris said while laughing. “It was appraised [for] between thirty and fifty-thousand dollars.”
That auction will happen on June 22. Pre-auction bidscan be submitted over the Internet at www.ha.comthrough l0 p.m. on June 21. That will be followed by a live auction, which will also accept real time Internet bids, at the company’s main gallery in Dallas.
“We have a whole collection of Col. Sanders memorabilia,” he said. “It’s really exciting. We’ll see how it goes.”