Morris: A Proud Accomplishment

June 30th, 2008

I know Morris peripherally; he was Lara’s co-worker at the Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory. He is funny and sat in the corner by the window of the office they shared. Occasionally I’d hear stories about him. Like the time she took him up Mt. Rainier with a bunch of friends. (at left: Morris by the UW columns, his requested portrait location)

Morris suffered on the Muir snow field, a 5000 foot climb from Paradise to Camp Muir at the oxygen-poor elevation of 10,000 feet. For someone who lives at sea level, this is a potentially dangerous elevation and Morris, who made it to Muir but declined to ascend to the summit the next day, exclaimed his exhaustion was so deep he’d seen the ghost of Tupac.

Recently Morris asked me to photograph him in his graduation gown. Certainly, I said, especially because of how well Lara spoke of him. He had asked me rather casually, but after a few questions I realized that it wasn’t “just” a Ph.D. in Forest Resources.

He was one of 27 in his graduating high school class in Waterproof, Louisiana, where “you don’t go to the woods, especially a fella with a nice tan like me.” College wasn’t the first thing on his mind–the Marines were–but he found himself in Louisiana studying in a new urban forestry program, because they offered funding. During an internship in southern Oregon he met his mentor, a University of Washington professor who offered Morris a research assistantship and got him into the UW program. (at right: Morris and family, with their au pair)

In an essay authored by Morris for a 2003 issue of the UW alumni magazine he says:
“My parents did not go to university. On mom’s side I am the only child who ever graduated with a bachelor’s and other degrees. I tell my wife all the time that I’m kind of surprised that I’m even in college. I was raised by my great-grandfather and grandmother. I don’t even remember what my father looks like. My mother never had a real job. My great-grandfather never went to high school. My uncle and aunt know what a master’s degree is, but not my grandma. They know I’ve been in school for a long time, they don’t understand what a Ph.D. is.”

While Morris labored over his masters degree, his mentor told him to apply for the Gate’s scholarship one week before it was due. He applied and soon found himself on the Ph.D. track. And on graduation day he stood before me, a proud father dressed in heavy purple robes symbolic of smarts and determination. Proud work for a guy who never thought he’d never go to college. (at left: Morris with the boys)

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