Comments at Jim Morse’s Celebration of Life
We’re grateful to be here today to honor the memory of a dear friend and an extraordinary human being.
I won’t replay for you Jim’s pioneering resume in Vermont and international jurisprudence. Others have done that better than I ever could. My early interactions with Jim were not professional, they were personal, first as a neighbor and then as a dear friend.
It all began when I fell in love with and bought Saul Douglas’s pig barn just up the road from Gretchen and Jim’s house by the covered bridge, over time converting it into a makeshift home and recording studio. Needless to say, recording studios in the early ‘70’s were hardly places of abstemious behavior.
On two occasions, a car leaving the studio in the middle of the night either went airborne over the short rise above Jim and Gretchen’s driveway and landed in their front yard or, on another night, missed the bridge entirely and came to rest in the waters of Lewis Creek in their front yard.
These were my first meetings with my new neighbors, Jim and Gretchen. Also present, a discreet local wrecking service that catered to such events without informing law enforcement so long as no one had been injured.
Suffice it to say that Jim and Gretchen were gracious, tolerant neighbors, and we became fast friends.
It’s only been in more recent times, however, that after we all retired from our various careers, we could take the time to really explore and amplify our friendship – my wife Kate, Gretchen, Jim, and I, spent many hours over coffee and occasional meals at the Hinesburgh Pub discussing the issues of the day.
Gretchen and I shared our experience serving on the board of the then-Fletcher Allen Health Center and our perspectives about the turbulent evolution of nonprofit healthcare in Vermont.
Jim enriched these conversation with his keen sensibilities on the human impacts of policy formation ̶ that is to say, what “policy” means in the lives of real people. Most discussions about policy, money, and data are intellectual. But Jim always introduced us to what they mean in the human heart. His empathy for the human condition never failed to remind us that a person lies behind every policy decision.
Jim’s entire career married his profound sense of humanity and empathy with his deep knowledge of the criminal justice system. His affection and respect for the children and adults who were the focus of his career in law and justice was always evident in his words and actions.
When he served as Defender General, a couple Jim was defending would be spared further jail time if they could find a place to live. The wife was pregnant. Unable to find a place and unable to pay their current rent, they would be remanded back to jail were it not for Jim, who had a small cabin on his property that his children used as a playhouse and overnight hideaway. Jim made the place livable and took in the couple until another more permanent home could be found for them. This level of caring appears nowhere in the job description of the Vermont Defender General.
Jim’s work in the court system dealing with the downstream human chaos that lands in the criminal justice system informed his spiritual decision to move his own efforts upstream to prevention.
Then-Governor Jim Douglas appointed him a commissioner in the Agency of Human Services where he undertook the creation of a new department called the Department for Children and Families with a focus on child protection, early childcare and education, and juvenile justice ̶ all infused with his passion not only for justice but for the wellbeing of children, families, and the social and economic environment in which they grow up. His goal was to deter or prevent the tragic causes of a young person’s entry into the criminal justice system by doing what he could to ensure their wellbeing from an early age.
Such vision is rare indeed in the realm of politics. Jim’s profound sense of humanity and human connection to his family and friends informed his every move in the realm of law and policy. His role as paterfamilias brought joy to his children and grandchildren with whom he played more as a child, than as an authority figure. This same love, meeting people at their level rather than his, infused his work with countless Vermonters.
Would that we had such deep human understanding and commitment in our politicians today.
Finally, I would not be a true friend if I did not also bear witness to Jim’s creative sensibilities. I know you all have copies of his wonderful book “Doodles.” Even a casual scan reveals the depth of Jim’s personal aesthetic and keen understanding of humankind and its relationship to the patterns of nature. His love for photography offered a further outlet for his strong creative force.
Jim was also a poet, deeply inspired by Vermont’s own Robert Frost. You’ll hear a dear friend recite his favorite poem later in the service.
Kate and I were given the opportunity to read a number of Jim’s poems, leaving us with no questions about his skills. Like all writers, some of his work needed feedback and editing, but as an author of nine books, I fully understand the collaborative effort between author and editor. Jim asked us to review and give feedback on his work, most of which stood on its own, needing only our appreciation.
But the descriptor I would most want to describe Jim would be, “a spiritual person.”
Jim was a not a religious person. We often discussed the difference between spirituality and religion, never denying that one could be adherents of both.
But we acknowledged to one another that neither of us were of a religious bent. I often cited my own love / hate relationship with the religion of my upbringing, Catholicism. We mused about the existence of God together, agreeing that atheism was as troublesome and perhaps as arrogant as religious orthodoxy.
Jim asked how can we know what lies beyond? We agreed that, although not adherents of any religion, we were both agnostic on the subject of the existence of a God or gods, and would just hope for the best.
Once we even mused about what an afterlife might be like. I’m sure these thoughts were very much in his mind, as he had long accepted his approaching death. The goal he expressed to me was to make the most of every moment he had left with his family and friends… and he did.
When Gretchen called us to tell us about Jim’s last moments with his family, it seemed to us both like a beautiful and conscious transition to whatever afterlife there is. Our tears were tears of sadness at losing Jim and tears of gratitude for having known him.
Jim will live forever in our hearts.