Art Morris - philanthropist and community pillar - dies at 93

DOWNEY - Another grand old pillar of the Downey community has died.James Arthur Morris, better known as Art Morris, died of natural causes at his home last Saturday, two months after the City Council honored him by declaring Feb. 8, 2012, his 93rd birthday, as "Art Morris Day." Also named Volunteer of the Year in 1988, he luxuriated in his role as grand marshal of the 2005 Downey Christmas Parade. More recently, he was eagerly anticipating his long wished-for chance to conduct Shostakovitch's "Galop" as the baton auction winner at the Downey Symphony Orchestra's last performance of the season last March 30, but he was too ill to attend. He was indeed a doer of many good deeds, loved and lived life to the full, as his family, many friends and associates will testify. Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. this Monday at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church. There will be viewing at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday at Rose Hills Memorial Park's Hillside Chapel, to be followed by Rosary at 7 p.m. Interment will be at Resurrection Cemetery in San Gabriel. Born in Pueblo, Colo., Morris developed "wanderlust" as a teenager and his love of adventure took him overseas. This was during the Great Depression as his family moved to California. At one time hired as a crew member of the U.S.S. President Wilson, a trans-Pacific passenger and cargo ship, the three-month voyage took him to several Pacific ports of call. Settling in Downey in the 1930s, his family would come to own Downey Hospital, with his father, Arch, as the original administrator. In the period before WWII, Morris became a licensed laboratory and radiology technician and worked as such at the family-owned and -run hospital. Joining the U.S. Navy when WWII started, Morris was deployed to the South Pacific. As a hospital corpsman, besides serving aboard ship, he was part of amphibious airborne units and worked at base hospitals which were often in forward positions. His service included much time on the islands of Tulagi and Guadalcanal. By the time his four years of service were over, he was serving as chief of the radiology department at Long Beach Naval Hospital. Following the war, he returned to Downey and Downey Hospital as the assistant administrator, eventually becoming administrator of the hospital. As the city continued to expand in the post-war years, Morris and his family instituted a board of directors even as the hospital was turned over to the community as a non-profit community hospital. In the years that followed, he joined the hospital board of directors, including a two-year term as president. He remained a board member until the time of his death. Morris had developed a serious artistic side as well, as photography remained a life-long passion and pursuit. At the Art Center College of Design, he studied under the likes of Ansel Adams. His photography studio, which he opened in the 1960s on Firestone Boulevard, prospered and in the course of his four decades of work in the field gained him firm recognition as a business leader in the community. Morris also had a long-standing business association with Downey Savings & Loan. It was through this financial institution that, as a director, he was instrumental in the bank's underwriting the costs of the annual attendance by third graders at the concerts in the Downey Theater. He was an early member of its board of directors, serving for some 26 years; he was named a director emeritus in 1994. He was on the board of the Downey Symphonic Society till the end as well. Among his earlier best-kept secrets that in retrospect only further enhance his reputation for his robust embrace of what life offered was his reaching world-class level in fencing. He was at one point (early 50s) the West Coast 3-weapon (foil, epee and sabre) champion and was bound for the Pan American Games and perhaps greater things until a back injury sidelined him. That he was a lifelong traveler, touching down on every continent with the exception of Australia and Antarctica, is not hard to believe. Throughout his life, Morris also engaged in exciting escapades exploring the California deserts. He and his friends, calling themselves "The Jeep Gang," used their WWII jeeps to explore the vast expanses of Death Valley, Anza-Borrego and Mojave Deserts. If his professional and avocational pursuits are impressive and have made quite an impact in the community, his civic and philanthropic endeavors border on the illustrious. A longtime member of the Downey Rotary Club (he is a Paul Harris Fellow, a coveted title in Rotary), he was just as likely to be seen serving pancakes at the club's annual breakfast as to be hosting international Rotary Exchange guests. He was a longtime member of the Downey Symphonic Society and provided generous financial support to the Downey Civic Light Opera Association. He was also a long-time member of the Downey Historical Society. One of his proudest, shining moments occurred only a while back. He donated $1 million to Downey Regional Medical Center towards the establishment of the state-of-the-art J. Arthur Morris Radiology and Imaging Center-in recognition of his early work in the radiology department of the fledgling Downey Hospital. Tributes to him, mostly from his Rotary friends and colleagues, included this from Councilman Mario Guerra: "Our good friend Art Morris was a dear friend, mentor, Downey icon and great person. God bless him." And this from Richard Strayer: "Art was the consummate gentleman-always positive and a great example for all of us. Thanks for being a part of my life, Art." And Lorine Parks had this to say: "I am so sorry and will miss Art. He had a great ride for 93 years. When the quality of physical life has gone, I am glad Art was able to go quickly... We will miss him." Gracie Eshilian, who was as close to Morris as anyone, wrote: "I have lots of wonderful memories of Art. I loved him. He was Superman. In the last five years he had had many serious illnesses and had, like Superman, beaten the odds. Until the last, Art and I always went to opening night at the Downey Theater. There was this time when he had been at the hospital that week, but on that Friday afternoon I got a call from him asking if I would be ready at 7:40 p.m. and I said, 'aren't you still in the hospital?' Art said, 'Yes, but I'll be out by then.' He was, and we went to opening night and we even made the cast party." Morris is survived by sons, Jim and Mike; daughters, Mary and Anne Bowman; son-in-law, Kirk Bowman; and granddaughters, Amanda and Lauren.

********** Published: April 26, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 02