BY BARBARA MORRIS — For someone who had lived in Hyattsville only since 2008, Richard A. Morris knew a lot of people in the city. But some are still unaware of his death, which occurred on Nov. 21, 2017, at the University of Maryland Medical Center Shock Trauma hospital in Baltimore, after three weeks of complications following spinal surgery. Even those who occasionally came to Richard’s rescue have trouble understanding how that last fall could have resulted in his death at 74 years old. Most people experiencing such falls would not suffer broken bones, but in 2004 Richard was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer in which malignant plasma cells in the bone marrow interfere with cells that keep the bones strong. With internet research suggesting a one-to-three-year life expectancy, but having instead survived thirteen years, Richard often saw his life in terms of that 2004 diagnosis and dividing line, remarking, “And now I have six grandchildren and four novels!”
His social justice novels — available locally at Franklins Restaurant, Brewery and General Store and Busboys and Poets — were the final phase of a purpose-driven life in which Richard was aware of wanting his life to make a difference. In graduate school, he was a driver for Cleveland mayoral candidate Carl Stokes, who eventually became the first black mayor of a major American city. Richard was so inspired by Stokes that he began to think that politics was the key to changing the world, which prompted him to change his direction in life.
Richard dropped out of graduate school, enlisted in the U.S. Army, and went to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga. His year-long “camping trip” in Vietnam (Richard was in A/2/5,1st Cavalry Division [Airmobile]; Vietnam 1967-1968) was the basis for his war satire Cologne No. 10 for Men and his Skytroopers CD of 19 songs that he wrote during that year. More recently, in his blog, Richard summarized each of the ten episodes of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary series, “The Vietnam War,” and added commentary regarding his own life during that time period.
Also in this blog, one can search the term “Agent Orange” and find ten different posts in which he discussed this subject, though never mentioning that for Vietnam veterans, his multiple myeloma is a presumptive Agent Orange disease.
In one of Richard’s final blog posts, “On the Wrong Side of History,” he wrote about Hyattsville, saying that “It is a city where neighbors proudly act upon values that seem to me to be on the right side of history. In a time when everyone wonders where the future political leaders will come from, I feel so fortunate to have strong leadership on the right side of history in my own city.”
Partway through his year in Vietnam, Richard decided that politics was not the key to changing the world — instead, law or business was the answer. He took the GRE in a Quonset hut in Vietnam and, upon his return to the U.S., entered and graduated from Harvard Business School. His plan was to get involved in the construction of prefabricated houses and eventually immerse himself in “the great problems of rebuilding the big cities.”
Richard learned the basics of prefabbing at Hodgson Houses in Millis, Mass, and then relocated to Garrett County, where his parents had retired. There, he built over a hundred houses and established a prefab housing company, Shelter, Inc., which made wall panels for builders. It was during this time that he invented his Paneldrape system of window insulation, a wall system with insulating panels that slid over windows in an era when even the best windows had little resistance to cold. He also experimented with passive solar heating.
The latter part of his career in housing was at the National Association of Homebuilders Research Center in Upper Marlboro and the National Association of Homebuilders in Washington, D.C. Richard initiated U.S. research into shallow, frost-protected foundations and won acceptance for the method in the International Building Code and International Residential Code for all types of buildings. Other work of his resulted in the requirements for interconnected smoke alarms in bedrooms and vertical grab bars for bathtubs in hotels. Richard wrote numerous technical publications about building codes, energy conservation, foundation design and construction, lead paint and remodeling and universal design.
Richard’s final novel, Masjid Morning, incorporates his experiences in construction part in a book that, as homebuilder Jay Endelman described, “moves effortlessly between technical descriptions of a mosque rising from the ground like a living being and the emotional struggles between religions.” This novel also reflects Richard’s involvement in Hyattsville meetings to learn about Islam, as well as his concerns about Islamophobia in this country.
Richard’s novels Canoedling in Cleveland and Well Considered reflect other time periods in his life. Canoedling in Cleveland is about a canoeing adventure in the 1960s that stemmed from his inquiry to his high school newspaper advisor as to why his community was all white. Never getting a satisfactory answer in high school, Richard, as a senior citizen, created book characters who would sleuth out the answers in fiction. Well Considered also reflects his concerns about racial justice and came about during the twenty years when he lived in Bowie and studied the history of Prince George’s County.
Having followed his daughters Jennifer Sheppard and Audrey Engdahl to Hyattsville and eventually building a multi-generational home in which to live with the Sheppard-Ruby family, Richard quickly became involved with author events and festivals such as Hyattsville Arts & Ales, St. Jerome’s Carpe Noctem holiday boutique, and the Riverdale Arts Festival. He also tutored for a couple of years at Hyattsville Elementary School, volunteering with the school’s Lego-robotics club there and being a sponsor for their Zombie Run. He was also an enthusiastic attendee at music programs there and at Hyattsville Middle School. Richard participated in two Hyattsville book clubs: the Bridging Cultural Gaps meeting at the Hyattsville Municipal Building and the Busboys and Poets book club.
Richard’s memorial service was held on Dec. 16, 2017, at University Christian Church, with friends from various parts of his life attending. It was at this service that Hyattsville residents met son Alex Morris, from Derwood, whose tribute to his dad was an often-mentioned highlight of the service. Richard also leaves six grandchildren: Brandon Weston-Morris, Ben Ruby, Robin Engdahl, Joe Ruby, Elvy Engdahl and Paul Sheppard.
Barbara Morris was married to Richard Morris for 50 years and remains his partner in sharing his legacy and keeping his books alive.