Allen Morris dropped out of school in the 11th grade.
He worked at junk yards, at packing companies, foundries, gas stations, hospitals and on trash truck routes and state highway road crews. “Anything to keep from stealing,” as he put it later.
Morris, 74, never escaped those humble origins, never made big money.
But one thing sometimes leads to another.
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His son, Allen Morris Jr., says he got a university degree because of his dad.
His daughter, Alicia Thompson, says she got a doctorate because of her dad.
She says she was chosen as superintendent of Wichita schools this year because of her dad.
Beginning July 1, the daughter of a one-time high school dropout will provide an education to more than 50,000 children in the biggest school district in Kansas – and earn a salary of $240,000.
And when Thompson donated a kidney three years ago to save her brother’s life, she did that for her brother but did it without hesitation because of their dad.
On this Father’s Day, the children of Allen Morris say he is the greatest man they will ever know.
A reason for college
When the future superintendent of Wichita schools was 16, her dad made her go to work pounding steel fence posts into the ground.
Allen Morris was by then the Wichita area superintendent for the Kansas Department of Transportation, running road repair crews.
“I could not believe he did that to me,” she said. “He said I had to go to work in summers between school. He said work is important to life. And I thought, ‘I am just a girl, so I need to work in an office.’
“But he put me in steel-toed boots. He made me work in the heat of the day, pounding steel posts along the highway.
“And I said, ‘My golly, what is going on?’ And he finally told me: ‘I want you to get an education. I want you to do this so you will know what you DON’T want to do in life.’
“So I thought about that.
“We used to watch him work. We’d watch how he’d work sometimes two jobs, a day and night job, not only so he could provide but so we could take piano lessons.
“I thought about that.
“And so I became the best steel fence post person out there for the Kansas Department of Transportation.”
‘It will be OK’
Allen Morris Jr., four years younger than Thompson, earned a degree from the University of Oklahoma in management of information systems.
He has worked for more than 20 years for the Wal-Mart corporation. That success, he said, came because of the same relentless insistence from his dad that his sister encountered as she pursued a doctorate.
But perhaps his most impressive achievement so far involves staying alive.
Allen Morris Jr. was diagnosed as a young man with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a serious heart condition that can damage the muscles and the ventricles of the heart and can lead to sudden cardiac arrest. Treatment, exercise and diet eventually got the condition under control.
But it was terrifying.
“But one of the big things that got me through was that Dad, from his lifelong walk with God, had always had this way of positive thinking. ‘You’re in good hands,’ he would tell me.
“He never said ‘this is bad.’ He never worried. And that really calmed me, and with his help I got through that as good as anybody could.
“And then years later, in 2014, he was the same way about it when it became clear I needed a kidney transplant. ‘You’re fine,’ he’d tell me. ‘You will find a donor. It will be OK.’ He helped me get through that.”
Their father got Thompson through the kidney crisis, too, after doctors told the family that Allen Jr.’s best hope for a kidney donor would be a family member.
“Everybody knows in my family that I am absolutely scary about going to doctors and getting needles,” Thompson said. “But there was no way I was not going to do what I did. It was my father who told me my brother needed a transplant. It was my father who said a family member might be best. So I said, ‘Let’s get tested, and if I’m a good donor, let’s get it done.’
“We spent months with the Mayo clinic getting tested, getting ready. And, yes, we were all fearful.
“But he took away the fear. He took away the fear. ‘When one family member falls, we all fall,’ My Daddy taught us that.”
Allen Morris Sr. doesn’t remember when he had an epiphany about education – the one that led to all those college degrees earned by his children.
But it happened one day, he said, when he was worried. About how he’d worked so hard for seemingly so little. He didn’t mind it when it was all about him.
“But I had this fear that my children might turn out like me,” he said.
Alicia was about 10 that year, he said. So that would be about 1979. Allen Jr. was 6.
And so, suddenly, he began talking about education. A lot.
“It became not about whether we’d go to college but where,” Thompson said. “ ‘What job do you want to have?’ ‘What are you going to do?’
“In our house, education became the most important thing. If a teacher called our home about our school work, those teachers knew that there would be consequences at home if we were not working hard.”
He wasn’t the only parent who suddenly applied a lot more pressure. Deloris, his wife, had started from the beginning of school reading to Allen Jr and Alicia all the time, helping them with homework, insisting “this is not a C-grade family; this is an A- and a B-grade family.”
But the pressure Morris suddenly began to apply to his children only made Alicia flourish, even though she was headstrong and, by her own account, often didn’t do as she was told. She flourished, she said, because she’d noticed something about her dad.
“Any time I’d walk into another house in our neighborhood, like as not, I’d see my dad sitting at the table, helping people, talking through their problems.
“At church, he was not only a deacon but a head deacon, always helping people. Young men sought him out, wanted his advice and wisdom, but you know what? Young women sought him out, too.
“This went on all his life, and it’s still going on,” Thompson said. “A few years ago, when people in the community founded Real Men Real Heroes, which mentors young people, he became one of the first people they took in. And that wasn’t our family who nominated him. That was people in the community.
“I ended up wanting to do anything I could to please my dad.
“So you know what I did?
“Every time I achieved another milestone in education, every time I won another award, I’d bring it home and give it to him. I have literally junked up my dad’s house and cluttered it up with my things, because I gave them all to him.
“He’s promised to give them all back to me someday. But he’s got them for now.
“And I gave them all to him because I wanted to see the look on his face.”