Claude Morris wasn’t supposed to drive. His lungs were filling up with cystic fibers. Doctors feared the Spokane Valley man could run out of breath and die in traffic. Morris, 78, wouldn’t listen. He’d wave to his wife as she went out the front door to work in the morning, then grab his car keys and wrestle his oxygen bottle into the front seat of his Subaru Legacy.
He had places to go, people to serve. On the brink of physical exhaustion, Morris thought of people who were worse off than him, children in need of role models or scholarships, animals in need of shelter. Because of his relentless drive to raise money for various charities, friends on whom he leaned gave Morris a nickname, “high-class pickpocket.”
The fund-raising ended Aug. 2. Morris died of pulmonary fibrosis, the incurable illness that over the last five years took Morris’ breath away.
“I’m sure going to miss him,” said Jack Pring, a friend of Morris’ and frequent contributor to causes championed by the retired salesman. “This whole Valley and this town is going to miss that man. He put other people ahead of himself even when he wasn’t feeling too good.”
Morris was the Santa Claus who swooped in by helicopter for the Spokane Valley Hospital Christmas celebration, even though he was afraid to fly. He was the bidder at a charity auction who paid top dollar for a puppy, even though he wasn’t fond of pets. He would do whatever it took to make his charities successful.
“Claude was a very kind, caring person, who was kind of a dreamer,” said Hugh McIntosh, a member of Morris’ Spokane Valley Rotary Club. “He was always thinking about ‘how can we make things better.’ ”
Morris’ last project was a program to identify at-risk students from the community’s middle schools and team them up with mentors who would work with the students all the way through high school. Upon graduation, the kids were to receive college scholarships. He called the program Upward Bound, an idea he literally dreamed up one night, said Morris’ wife of nearly 20 years, Linda.
As she listened to her husband explain his dream, Linda thought he might have finally found a charity that wouldn’t work. Scholarships were one thing, but finding volunteers to mentor children over several years was another.
“He wrote it up and proposed it in Rotary,” Linda said. “It was amazing the support he received.”
Rotarians agreed to undergo training so they could mentor the kids, who were selected by school counselors and the service organization. They held a $100 a plate luncheon last year at the Davenport Hotel to support the scholarships, hired Oliver North to speak and sold 400 tickets. At the time Morris died, the Rotarians were preparing for their second big fund-raiser, lunch with Sally Ride, first American woman in space.
As a kid, Morris could have been considered “at risk.” A Montana native, Morris ran away from home after dropping out of Catholic school when he was 15. He headed to the coast with two other runaways, determined to join the Merchant Marines. His traveling companions thought better of the move and headed home.
But Morris didn’t think returning to his parent’s sheep ranch outside Great Falls was possible. His father was so angered by Morris’ dropping out of school he hit the boy.
Morris made his way to Seattle, got a job as a stock clerk for The Bon Marche and waited for a chance to join the Merchant Marines.
World War II was on when Morris set sail. The ships he rode on were torpedoed three times. The danger of the Merchant Marines along with the promise of an education through the G.I. Bill, prompted Morris to enlist in the Navy. He fared better on ships equipped for battle.
After the war, Morris enrolled at a small college in Bemidji, Minn., and started a family of six children at a very young age. Morris got into equipment sales for Toro, advanced to marketing director and eventually moved to Spokane and started his own equipment supply business.
His off-work hours were filled with volunteer work. He was a member of the Spokane County Parks Committee and the St. Luke’s Hospital board. When the hospital hit financial trouble, Morris became its interim chief executive officer.
At the hospital, Morris developed the Festival of Trees, a Spokane Valley gala for charity. Linda Morris said she was never sure from where her husband’s drive to help others came, only that it was unstoppable.
“I really don’t know,” she said. “But my husband had a lot of vision. Everything he did, he just became an expert. And when he got started, he wouldn’t let go,” which is why in the last days of his life Morris was loading an oxygen bottle into his Subaru and getting ready to hit the road.
The perpetual benefactor had a list of things to do before his time was up. He needed to thank the Rotarians for their help. He needed to see his friend Pring, a man who jokingly suggests Morris could have broke him by soliciting donations for myriad charitable causes. And he needed to write letters to all his children.
The latter item on his to-do list never got done. Or did it?
In the last days of his life, Morris was so busy sneaking down the driveway to help others he never actually put pen to paper.
Morris thought his work was being done on the sly, but Linda knew better. She’d come home from work, and Morris would act as if he’d been home all along. She would look at him sternly and say, “Where did you go?” He could never tell how she knew, but she did because Linda had been putting sheets of paper behind the tires of Morris’ Subaru. In his last days, when Morris was at his worst but still felt the need to help somebody else, he left tire tracks on the sheets while pulling out of the garage. And that was his final message.