Follow by Email

Saturday, October 15, 2011

No. 75 Dr. James A. Morris, Jr., Presidential Award Winner

Page forward one generation from mine – make that one and a half ...

Science awards, White House honors, research grants; these were totally foreign to the world I knew as a boy. A few days ago, they all came together when I was able to watch as my son-in-law was one of a select few who received a Presidential Award for "Scientists and Engineers.” Sitting between him and me was his wife - my daughter Joella, and as she looked up towards her husband, I could tell that she was the least surprised of anyone that he had earned such a signal honor.

First and foremost James is Joella's husband, and as much as that he is Jacy's, Riley's, Zoey's & Charlie's dad. But in addition, he is a widely acclaimed research scientist; and that was pretty much accepted even before he received this award. He travels the world (yes, the world) speaking to groups who want to learn from the work he is doing. He has been interviewed on national news shows, including the “Big Three” network stations and Dan Rather did a feature program last year in which he played a prominent part.

Seeing and hearing him as he accepted a National Science Award, standing at a podium ensconced in velvet with the D.C. monuments clearly visible from the window behind him, accepting a stipend funded by Congress, feted in the heart of the Nation’s capital, then meeting and shaking hands with the President himself in the East Room of the White House, I could not help but reflect on two unrelated themes; one sublime and the other now seeming more and more ridiculous.

First, I was sensitive to the path he has followed and that started as the son of a commercial fisherman in Sea Level; learning early on what it meant to work long and hard in the water, and growing to appreciate the traditions into which he was born. In more ways than one he was a prodigy. His love for the life of a waterman was augmented by an aptitude and a fascination with understanding the biological bases for the natural world that was both his playground and his workplace. And perhaps even more especially from his father, Jimmy, at a very young age he came to accept the importance of thrift and work; so much so that by the time he graduated from high school he owned not only a car, but also a boat and a house – yes, a house!

Later on, while supervising the building of another home for his growing family, he and Joella lived with us for several months. During that entire time I hardly ever saw him in the morning. All of my life I have loved the mornings and been an early riser. But even though I was up and about each day by the time that the sun broke the horizon, James was already out of the house and making good on his plans for the day.

The other stream of consciousness that kept popping into my mind as James spoke that morning was of the first time I met the boy whom I had heard was interested in dating Joella. Early one Saturday evening in 1993 he came to the home where Susan and I had nurtured our family of six children. He was there to pick one of them up for a ride into town. I was somewhat amused, and more than a little nervous, when he pulled into our driveway behind the wheel of a rough-looking mid-sized pickup, jacked up several inches for off-road adventures, and making noises so loud that our dog came out barking at the disturbance.

Getting out of the car I saw a tall and lanky boy, whose blond and curly hair made him look more like a surfer-dude than the budding gentleman I had long anticipated for my second daughter. There was a part of me that wanted to tell him “no thank you” and send him on his way, but another part of me had confidence in the choices of the one of my girls who was most like her mother. Still, I could not help but feel a little chagrined as the two drove off, so much so that I have been reminded of that feeling many times since; especially when confronted with just how mistaken my first impression had been.

One of the greatest blessings from my daughters has been the sons-in-law they have given me. Each of them has become much more than that – so much so that I consider them not as in-laws but as sons. Kevin, James, Kyle and Rodney have each, in a unique way, filled voids in my world; usually one that I was not aware of until they made it evident, and they all are now both my friends and my confidants.

Because of his love and appreciation for the disappearing world of the waterman, the one that I knew as a boy, James has become for me a forward-facing link to my past. He keeps his and our boats – so far we have owned three together – and he is always doing something fun and interesting in the water. He cultivates both oysters and clams on leased bottom, and keeps the entire family stocked with all types of seafood. More importantly, he loves and appreciates the stories that are so much a part of the local maritime tradition, and often adds some of his own to my growing collection. In an important way, at least to me, he helps me feel that both the stories and the tellers still matter.

These were some of the thoughts that flooded my mind as I sat in the audience for his recognition and award. I wondered if he knew just how proud I was of him and for my daughter and their four children – my grandchildren. I wanted others who knew him, especially his close friends and family, to better appreciate just how significant that day was for him, and even for them. And most of all, I wanted somehow to capture that moment when all the work and worry of being a father are swallowed up in the look on the face of my daughter as she senses that everybody else, including her papa, had caught a glimpse of what she had been seeing all along.


  1. Beautiful words Joel. I get the feeling that if James did not know how much you love him, he knows it now, without question. Wish I could have been there.

  2. Wonderful post, Uncle Joel. It reminded me how deeply grateful my parents must be to have Lucinda and Felicity in the family.
    --Nathaniel in Germany

  3. Two men and keen minds that make me proud to be kin to both of them! I remember that wedding day in your front yard Joel ... and before that, earlier that morning when you and Susan stood on my front porch. My sista Susan ... I will never, ever forget that day ... James also made some good choices that day too. Proud Downeasters ... all of us. Kin ye all.