Leona S. Morris, a well-respected educator, committed community activist and popular TV personality, passed away on Dec. 23. The Virginia native and Northwest Baltimore resident was 104.
Over the years, Morris was considered a groundbreaking pioneer for professional women and senior citizens.
The following is a eulogy delivered in Morris’s honor at her Dec. 27 funeral by Rabbi Donald R. Berlin, rabbi emeritus of Temple Oheb Shalom.
As I sat down to prepare this eulogy, a tune lingered in my mind: “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”
With apologies to Rodgers & Hammerstein, creators of “The Sound of Music,” I wondered, “How do you describe a lady like Leona?”
Our Leona was unique in virtually every way: unpredictable, feisty, creative, full of fun, yet serious, irreverent and respectful, conservative and open-minded, a no-nonsense person who appreciated the unusual, contemporary-yet-traditional, principled, prepared, precocious, a premier person, loving and beloved.
Like Maria in “The Sound of Music,” Leona was a problem to be solved.
Yeah, go ahead, Rabbi, and try, as if becoming 104 years old isn’t spectacular enough!
Leona and I first met at a meeting of the search committee when I was a candidate to become the senior rabbi of Temple Oheb Shalom. I still recall how penetrating were her questions, cogent, carefully considered before she asked them. After I responded, she acknowledged that I had indeed done my homework on Baltimore.
Little did I realize I was being quizzed by an accomplished student and teacher of history no less.
Her father, Samuel, was a merchant. Her mother was Sadie, and her late brother whom she adored was Vernon. Leona was an extremely devoted daughter and sister. We extend our condolences today to her niece, Lynne and her husband, Bernie, present today, as well as to other members of the family.
Leona was born in a small southwestern Virginia town, a place called Buena Vista, just south of Lexington, near Natural Bridge. I had actually given my very first college lecture in that town a few months following my ordination — possibly the first Jew many there had ever met, let alone a rabbi.
Leona would later live on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where I moved following retirement. Maybe that’s why we enjoyed such a strong connection. It was beshert – we were destined to meet.
She arrived in Baltimore to attend Goucher College on an academic scholarship majoring in history. She was graduated with honors, became a Phi Beta Kappa, also a Phi Alpha Theta in history honors, subsequently acquiring her master’s degree at the University of Maryland.
She had barely begun what was to become an extensive trail of accomplishment and recognition, becoming elected as president in one organization after the other, studying in one university after another: American, Harvard, San Francisco State, Michigan, Johns Hopkins and my own alma mater, the University of Toronto.
Uniquely, she never married. She never had children. But miracle of miracles, she became a mother to every one of us. How did she do it? What motivated her? What made Leona Leona?
Two principle reasons: First, she loved being alive, treasured every minute, lived every opportunity to the fullest up to her very last breath. Living was sacred to her. Leona was the epitome of the power of age and optimism. How else do you make it to 104 (last Nov. 27th)?
Secondly, she maintained a very special recipe for living. Ingredients? She cared deeply about you, and everyone else; showed you, and everyone else, enormous respect; elicited the best from you, and everyone else; cheered you on as a champion, and everyone else.
At the same time, she stayed sufficiently humble and hoped so would everyone else; retained just the right measure of standoffish-ness with you, and everyone else; a genuine presence who did not take herself too seriously while remaining pretty serious with you and everyone else; all of this wrapped with a unique mystique, topped with a million-dollar smile, a contagious giggle and stirred to the correct temperature with just the right amount of chutzpah – not like everyone else.
First and foremost, Leona was the ultimate teacher. She never ceased being a teacher, took pride in teaching, was a popular teacher and delighted in the success of every one of her students who would recognize and spot her all over the world years later. She was even identified at the Great Wall of China.
After graduating from Goucher, she became a Southern High School teacher in history and English. She would then become an instructor in history and sociology at the Community College of Baltimore, and later named assistant dean of student personnel before becoming the dean, the first woman to do so.
While pursuing her master’s degree, she taught history at the University of Maryland, the first woman to do so. For so many years, she was the teacher of the confirmation class at her beloved Oheb Shalom, the first woman to do so.
Her students adored her, even though she brooked no nonsense. They called her “The Sergeant.” The story is told that one of her confirmation students brought her a Chanukah present a week early before Chanukah. She carefully placed it in her desk drawer as her student knew she would until the festival actually arrived. When they assembled a week later, the room reeked of a foul odor.
The gift was a brick of Limburger cheese. She was furious.
She gave Rabbi Abraham D. Shaw, my predecessor, an ultimatum. “Either he goes or I do!” The rabbi did not hesitate, such was his respect for her. The student was suspended for the year and returned the following year. That student went on to graduate first in his class from law school, was very successful and mostly, never lost his love and respect for Miss Morris.
I can tell the story because that student has long been deceased. I tell this story also because she loved hearing from her students throughout her life. I was personally overwhelmed to see how many people wrote notes of condolence these past few days noting that she was “my teacher.”
How many of you remember a specific teacher with that amount of love and regard so many years later? In fact, how many of you had her as a teacher?
To be a teacher of such achievement requires that you be a dedicated student. Leona always did her homework carefully, precisely, thoroughly. More than that, to instill such a love of learning, one must be relevant. And to be relevant is to be aware and engaged in the world at large.
This teacher did not isolate herself in books and in classrooms. She was an active participant in many organizations. She was a model advocate for women long before it became fashionable. And she did it so brilliantly – with full knowledge, to be sure, with clear perception, with precise analysis, and with these secret ingredients, a twinkle in her eye and a Cheshire cat smile on her face.
No wonder that she would attain enormous public recognition becoming a leader in the Association of University Women, locally and in the State of Maryland, the Maryland Council on Education, the Junior College Council of Middle Atlantic States, Central Scholarship Bureau, Phi Beta Kappa, Goucher College Alumnae Association, the National Council of Christians and Jews, the Maryland Association of Junior Colleges, the United Nations Association of Maryland, the Maryland Association for Adult Education, the Baltimore Jewish Council (where I was so proud to work closely with her), and of course, as the first female president of Temple Oheb Shalom, no slight accomplishment for her time.
And these are only the organizations where she served as president or in a leadership capacity. She was involved in a whole host of other groups.
As for Oheb Shalom, she was a student of Torah, the Reform movement and the Jewish community. She was truly an excellent president.
One of my rabbinical colleagues at Oheb Shalom, Rabbi John Moscowitz, wrote her a letter on her 90th birthday: “I was a freshly minted untested rabbi. … I assumed she was a schoolmarmish, no-nonsense, no humor and uptight sort. How wrong I was. … She was funny, friendly, warm with that wonderful sense of humor and the laugh that wouldn’t quit. …. I’ve not met a synagogue president since Leona Morris who possesses her maturity and judgement, to say nothing of her great respect for rabbis and congregations.”
May I add a personal “Amen!” to that wonderful insight?
Well, how impressive is all of that! Oh, wait, a minute, there’s more.
At age 72, she embarked on a whole new career as the senior citizen correspondent for WJZ-TV’s “Eyewitness News” team. Who expected that? Not even Leona herself. Every week, she delivered reports on medical, social and financial developments for the elderly. She was hugely successful with listeners and even more so with the entire staff at WJZ.
Her formula? “I like to stress the positive without being too Pollyanna-ish” she explained.
Still, she was a novice to TV. She had to learn to look right into the camera, cut down her tendency to ad-lib and be cautious about sounding too much like a teacher lecturing her students. She was not intimidated by the experience.
Once when the anchor, Al Sanders, of blessed memory, said he hoped to see her back next week, our feisty Leona replied, “Well, I certainly intend to be back!” She thought it hysterical that “at my age I’m starting a new career.”
All this achievement and all this movement everywhere from someone who never learned to drive a car. It didn’t matter. She was never shy about asking for a ride. And you felt so good and so ready to accommodate her request.
So how do you describe a lady like Leona?
Perhaps the only person who can even begin to answer that question is Leona herself. I discovered a quote of hers spoken in 2005 that says it all: ”I hope to be remembered as one who loved learning, who loved people, who was always ready to try new things, who accepted change, who was ready to help those who needed assistance and who always used humor to lighten difficult situations.”
As I recite this quote, I can somehow detect Leona chiding m: “Rabbi, if you had only quoted me at the outset, you might have saved a lot of time.”
Well, Leona, you will have to forgive me. I did it for me. I just had to say all these things because I like to talk almost as much as you did.
She was full of love, smart as a whip to the very end, erudite, witty and respectfully irreverent. That doesn’t do justice to any description of Leona. Let’s just say she was a blessing to all of us, her children.
And I hope you will respond: “Amen!”
Contributions in memory of Leona S. Morris may be sent to Temple Oheb Shalom, 7310 Park Heights Ave., Pikesville, Md., 21208.