Growing up in South Bend, Mike Morris never pictured himself as the school administration type. A career in the fishing industry, his own family’s lifeblood, seemed much more likely.
But he has relished his position as superintendent of the South Bend School District for the past 10 years — and the entirety of his career in education — and will miss it almost as much as he will enjoy the fishing, hunting and grandkid-visiting that he will do after retiring at the end of this year. He officially submitted his retirement notice this month.
“Word was out that this would be coming, though it may have come out a little bit earlier than anticipated,” Morris said. “The awareness was there, so not a big surprise for staff. I wanted us to be able to get moving on our search as soon as possible.”
Morris spent the majority of his childhood in South Bend, where his father was a plant supervisor for Coast Seafoods Co.
He remembers one exemplary story of his father’s strong work ethic. One summer as a junior high student, he had the chance to work on a gillnetting boat. “I was all excited, and he said, ‘No,’ ” Morris recalled. The work would probably have paid 10 times more than helping to cultivate oysters, which he did until graduating from high school, but “he didn’t want me to make easy money.”
Nonetheless, Morris was a determined young boy and was able to earn his own money throughout what he called a “Leave it to Beaver” childhood. He regrets that such opportunities are rare for children in South Bend these days.
“I feel so bad for kids, because when I was young here you could go pick blackberries and sell them at Forrie’s (Blue Top), or peel bark and sell it, lots of different things,” he said. “Not a lot of jobs now, it’s hard to learn a work ethic, hard to teach it, when there aren’t a lot of jobs.”
Morris said he was a “pretty good” student and graduated from high school in 1973 as the only male in a fiercely female-dominated top-5 of his class.
He graduated “debt free” from Western Washington University, where he double majored in education and special education after starting out in “his dad’s footsteps” of marine biology.
The change came about after he stumbled onto some developmentally disabled individuals at the school pool during a break from his frequent workouts at the school’s gym. Someone in charge, noticing his interest, challenged him, saying, “If you’re going to be here you might as well volunteer.” And, thus, his career in education began. While he was able to graduate “debt-free” due to working summers for the Weyerhaeuser Co., he feels conflicted about recommending college to his students these days.
“It’s hard to encourage them to go to college where they’ll end up $150,000 in debt,” he said.
Morris’ success in the classroom was comparable to his success on the basketball court. He played on South Bend’s 1972 team that went 25-3, finishing 8th in the state.
“That was a very exciting time for everyone on the team and community,” he said, adding that at the time, the team had not gone to state since 1956. “The community really embraced us and it is just a great memory.”
Morris had a similar experience in coaching a girls basketball team at the high school in 1993. They were 25-4 and finished 5th in the state.
“I’m very proud of that team. They were really a bunch of hard workers. (They) had great senior leaders and just were a fantastic bunch of kids,” said Morris, who has coached girl’s basketball for many years at different grade levels, now having coached the junior high girl’s team for many years.
Prior to his 31 years teaching at South Bend, Morris got his start in Columbia River Gorge, teaching grades 7-12.
“I never say no to anything,” he said of the offer to work in the position that he stayed at for four years. “Even though it was in another district.”
Although he, even still, regards the area as awe-inspiring and beautiful, he missed home and his family.
“My mom still lives here and brothers, it’s a really special town. A lot of folks here helped raise me, it’s a very close-knit group,” he said, adding here he has the “pressure of making everybody proud.”
Once back home, he taught a number of subjects at the junior high and high school level, including special education. He also served as athletic director. Morris said he basically did anything they needed of him.
He started his administrative career as Chauncey Davis Elementary principal, a position he worked at for 10 years starting in the early 90s.
“First day of school, the doors open and the kids come pushing through all excited,” he said. “Coming from a high school setting where you have to basically drag kids to get out of bed, it was quite the difference.”
The transition to the principal position and then to his superintendent position was somewhat seamless for Morris, who said he works alongside teachers he once worked with as a teacher himself.
“We have a peer relationship,” he said of the teachers and others he works with within the district. “Even though the title is different. You can’t take those things too seriously.”
As his years in South Bend progressed, Morris branched out in the community working to “give back to the community” that he said gave so much to him. He was very involved with the Willapa River Lions club, and has since moved his efforts to the South Bend Kiwanis Club.
“Both are fantastic organizations that do so much in our community,” he said. Morris has also been the Willapa Harbor Chamber president for the past two years.
“The Willapa Harbor community is very supportive of all our kids in the area,” he said, adding he worries sometimes about the future of civic groups in the area, due to the advancing age of many of the most stalwart members. “I encourage our younger folks to get involved and carry on the rich traditions of these great groups and give back something to whatever community they are in.”
Morris says the success of the district, despite having lost a lot of its population over the years, is due to his staff’s focus on the children.
“We work hard to provide a good education to our kids, provide a safe and happy place for them, as well as have high expectations in the area,” he said, adding he has a great staff that have complemented his efforts over the years.
“They say smart people hire and surround themselves with really good people. … It appears that I am a really smart guy,” joked Morris. He said a number of people are responsible for his success.
“Mr. and Mrs. Koplitz (retired South Bend educators and coaches Don and Bertha Koplitz) showed me that extra time at school is just part of the job. I wish I could have learned their calm,” he said, also thanking coach Mac Fraser, a coach whom he worked with at Stevenson. “They have been very influential to me on and off the court.”
“Don Lorentson, a principal in my early years, taught me more than any classes could and I still refer to our times together when problems arise,” he continued, adding there are numerous other names and faces. “I was very blessed to have some very big, influential people surround me in both my school days and education days at South Bend.”
In his retirement Morris plans to spend more time with his wife, Tammy, two daughters, Allison and Kelly, and his three grandchildren, Nathan, 10, Ryker, 5 and 1-year-old Kellen. He also plans to hunt (grouse and mushroom) and to fish, a hobby he said he had to quit for a while because of lack of time. He and his wife will also spend some time in Surprise, Ariz.
He says he’s grateful to his students “past and present” for teaching him so much about life, and providing him with an “unbelievably fun and rewarding career.”
“Believe in yourselves always, love your kids and enjoy chasing your dreams,” is his advice to students.
And the South Bend success story gives the advice he said is included each year in his graduation address, “If you want to soar with the eagles, you can’t run with the turkeys.”