When Deb Morris died suddenly last month, her family did not want flowers. Instead, they asked for donations to establish a college scholarship fund in her honor at Monadnock Regional Middle/High School, where she taught for the past 15 years.
“Flowers are beautiful, but Mom did not have a lot of tangible things,” said Amber Fields of Keene, the oldest of Morris’ four children. “Education was most important to her. She was a teacher for so long, and I think that it’s important to remember that, and it’s important to those kids for her to be able to give them something still, even in her absence. And I think she would have been proud of that.”
Morris, 68, died at her home in Keene on Sunday, Sept. 12, after suffering a sudden medical emergency. Monadnock, where Morris was a middle-school math teacher, canceled classes the following day to give staff time to prepare resources for grieving students and employees.
The following week, Principal Lisa Spencer said students paid tribute to Morris with posters and signs, where they left messages and memories for her. The Monadnock community will gather on Tuesday, Oct. 12, for a celebration of Morris’ life at the school in Swanzey Center. The event, which will run from 5-7 p.m., is open to the public.
“Deb herself was a beautiful spirit,” Spencer said. “She always had a smile on her face. She always had an open door to help students, any student — whether they were in her class, or they were seniors and had her six years ago.”
The students with whom Morris formed the deepest connections, her family and colleagues said, were often kids who struggled in school and felt misunderstood.
“I think Deb had that gift that great teachers have, which is that she was able to communicate to her students that she saw them and she loved them,” said Lisa Mahar, one of Morris’ three younger sisters. “She saw who they were, and she loved them. And ‘love’ is a tricky word to use, but that was the foundation on which she established her classroom.”
Mahar, who now lives in Warner, retired three years ago after spending 27 years as the administrator of the Monadnock Waldorf School in Keene.
“Deb and I shared a lot of common interests around education and what’s good and healthy for children, and what makes a classroom a great learning environment,” she said. “... Her genius in the classroom was really her ability to see each individual student and to communicate her love and respect for them.”
Morris also brought her own personal experiences to her work, which helped her form genuine bonds with her middle-school students, her sister said.
“For example, our family moved when she was in grade 9, and it was challenging for her to be the new student in school,” Mahar said. “So, she was always very conscious about new students, or students who were in transition, because she had her own experiences with how challenging that was.”
Morris grew up in Litchfield County, Conn., and graduated from Thomaston High School in 1971. Not long after that, she moved to Arizona and worked for 14 years at the south rim of the Grand Canyon, where she held a variety of roles including booking the iconic mule rides down into the canyon, driving a tour bus and overseeing the Phantom Ranch lodge on the canyon floor.
Fields spent her early years in Arizona with her mother, who often took her on work-related excursions throughout Grand Canyon National Park.
“And my mom and I hiked the north rim, the south rim, all of the trails,” she said. “... My mom really gave me such a great beginning to my life.”
Morris moved back to Connecticut in 1988, her sister said, earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Teikyo Post University in Waterbury and obtained her teaching certification. She taught at two different middle schools in Connecticut before moving to New Hampshire and starting at Monadnock in 2006.
Mike Jillson was already teaching middle-school math at Monadnock when Morris arrived, and the two quickly bonded over their shared Connecticut roots, he said.
“I can’t say she was like my mom, but she was like my big sister,” he said. About five or six years ago, Morris and Jillson team-taught a class of students who were struggling with math, and who took to calling their teachers “Ma and Pa,” Jillson said.
“And they would say, ‘Were going to Ma and Pa’s class,’ ” he said. “... It was hard, because those kids are kind of tough. But at the same time, I think both of us found it pretty rewarding, when you find success in that situation. And sometimes the successes weren’t big, either. And it might not even be necessarily that they did well academically, but they came into the room and said [to Morris and me], ‘I’m here today because you’re here.’ ”
Jan Firmin, one of Morris’ closest friends at Monadnock, said Morris held a variety of roles at the school over the years, including as a classroom teacher and interventionist, helping identify and address students’ behavioral and academic issues. She was often called on to mentor other teachers, too, Firmin said.
“And she always very willingly did that,” Firmin, a middle-school English teacher at Monadnock, said. “I think she would prefer to be in a classroom, but if that’s where she was needed, then that’s where she would go.”
Outside of school, Morris loved to travel, especially on road trips, her family and friends said.
“She loved to drive, and driving was sort of her happy place, her therapy place,” Mahar said. “Her colleagues would tell you that she usually took a one-hour drive before she got to school at 7 in the morning every day. So, she and I did a lot of car trips together.”
On one of those trips, in the summer of 2018, Morris and Mahar took a monthlong, self-designed tour of civil rights sites in the South. They covered 4,000 miles, and visited places like Selma, Montgomery and Hayneville, Ala., where they stopped at a memorial to Keene native and civil rights activist Jonathan Daniels, who was murdered there in 1965.
“And it was wonderful,” Mahar said of the trip. “We had fabulous conversations. We learned so much. And out of those 4,000 miles, Deb — the person who loved to drive — I think she drove 3,900 of those miles, and she allowed me to drive 100 miles of that. She just loved being in the driver’s seat.”
This summer, Morris drove out to Denver to visit her youngest daughter, Lark Dorweiler and her husband, Dorian, and the newest of her seven grandchildren, Abrah Dorweiler, who was born in March.
“It was fantastic,” Lark Dorweiler said. “I was really glad that she was able to do that. She got some bonding time.”
Morris was close with, and exceptionally proud of, all of her children and grandchildren, her family said.
“She took grandparenting very seriously, and she was very tuned in to what their interests were and what they liked,” Mahar said. “She was all about experiences — museums and the outdoors, and she never passed an aquarium that she didn’t stop in to visit, often with the grandchildren.”
In addition to Fields (and her husband, Alvin Fields) and Dorweiler, Morris is survived by two sons, Army Ranger Sgt. Matthew Morris of Torrington, Conn., and Joshua Mahar and his partner, Rachel Gori, of Goshen, Conn., and her grandchildren: Deja Fields, Daunte Fields, Dakota Fields, Dominic Fields, Aiden Fields, Dante Gori and Abrah Dorweiler.
Along with Mahar (and her husband, Bill Beardslee), Morris is survived by her sisters Jennifer Samela and her husband, Nick Samela, of Thomaston, Conn.; and Melinda Feola-Mahar and her wife, Alison Feola-Mahar, of Keene.
Anyone who wishes to donate to the scholarship fund in Morris’ honor can send donations in her name to Monadnock Regional Middle/High School at 600 Old Homestead Highway, Swanzey, NH 03446.