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Edmond native's legacy lives on in space and Earth

“Morris Hill” on Mars named after the late Richard Morris, who graduated in 1992 from Edmond Memorial High School and who was a mission manager on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Mission project.
BY BEN LUSCHEN bluschen@opubco.com Published: July 17, 2012
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He loved sports, played in a soccer league and was a passionate fan of Sooner football. He also dabbled in photography.

“I don't know where he found time for all of this stuff,” Joe Warren said.

Depression: a ‘disease'

Morris' variety of passions and welcome demeanor make his death all the more puzzling for his parents.

“We have no idea why he took his own life or anything else,” his mom, Nancy Warren said. “We have no idea. We talked to him (the Sunday night before his death) and he seemed Okay.”

Though a specific reason for Morris' death is not known, the Warrens believe a number of things could have contributed to his decision.

Nancy Warren said her son did sound depressed when she spoke with him that Sunday night. After their son's death, the Warrens learned Morris had a two-hour phone conversation with a former girlfriend after he had spoken with his parents.

Morris was also experiencing pressures from work as the launch date for Curiosity crept closer. Morris had also recently purchased a home and may have had a hard time making its payments.

Joe Warren says Morris should be forgiven for a momentary lapse in judgment.

“Depression's a disease, and it can get you at that one moment where you think there's no way out and everyone would be better off if you're gone,” he said.

“Richard packed more in that one short lifetime than a lot of people could if they lived 10 lifetimes,” Nancy Warren added.

Morris Hill

Morris' death hurt back home, but it also affected his friends and co-workers in California. Callas says Morris' sudden absence devastated the office.

“It was a big loss because he really was universally liked,” he said. “In any environment like this you have a collection of all these people with all these personalities. With Rich, his personality was always kind and laid-back and friendly and you could always make a joke with him.”

Because Morris was so well liked, his associates at the Jet Propulsion Lab sought ways to honor his life. Soon they realized there was no better way to honor a space man's legacy than by naming something on the planet he spent most of his professional life studying.

They called Morris' family and told them the news.

“They wanted to make sure we didn't have a problem with them naming a feature on Mars after him,” Joe Warren said. “Obviously, we were thrilled.”

Weeks later, the Warrens received a letter informing them that a hill on Mars had been selected to honor Morris. Not just any hill; Morris Hill.

“I have a good friend who said, 'You know, I don't think I know anyone who has something named after them except for Richard. On Earth or Mars,'” Nancy Warren said.

Earlier this month, NASA released a panoramic view of Mars put together using hundreds of photos taken by the rover Opportunity. Morris Hill is visible in that panorama.

As nice as the tribute is, the Warren's want their son's legacy to mean more than a hill outer space. Nancy Warren says her son's life and strong work ethic can be a lesson for a younger generation.

“I want kids to realize they can go to school and they can do anything they want to do,” she said. “You just have to decide you want to do it. Even if you're poor and you have to work through it and it takes you 10 years to get out of school, what's 10 years to the rest of your life?”

His family has established a Richard Morris Memorial Fund through the Oklahoma City Community Foundation. The fund will either benefit children or students.

Though his life was shorter than hoped, Morris used the time he had to touch as many people as he could. It seems appropriate that his name will forever grace a hill on Mars.

Raised on red dirt, but forever alive on the Red Planet.