The Way We Were: Anita P. Morris

The Way We Were: Anita P. Morris
Anita P. Morris on her 100th birthday with Melody and Ron Mallett

She is a Coast Guard veteran of WWII, a patriot, a woman of faith, a hospital volunteer, an artist, wife, mother, and caregiver. She is and has been all of that and more. She is 100 years old. She is Anita P. Morris.

Morris was born Anita Gloria Paone on September 24, 1921 in Utica, New York to Vincent and Catherine, who had immigrated to America from Cantanzaro, Italy in 1905. One of her dearest memories of her parents was the day they had become American citizens. “They were so proud of that. They were just bursting over with tears,” she said. Morris still sees them kneeling in the backyard of their Utica home, kissing the grass, and thanking God for the privilege. “That made such an impression on me,” she said. She was seven years old then.

After graduating from Thomas R. Proctor High School in Utica in May 1940, Morris attended Ithaca College until 1943. If it weren’t for WWII, Morris likely would have graduated with a degree in teaching. But she left school early to join the United States Coast Guard.

By then, her father had already died of cancer. She had no brothers; she had one older sister, Marion, and one younger, Eva. “I loved my country so much,” Morris said, just as her parents had. So, she decided to leave college early to fight for the country on behalf of her family that had no males to offer. She lived up to the ideal her parents had instilled in her and her sisters, the beauty of being an American citizen.

Morris received her basic military training at Hunter College in the Bronx, New York and at Oklahoma A&M College. While in training at A&M, she continued her college studies and became co-captain of the football cheerleading squad.

Anita P. Morris in her radio days
Anita P. Morris in her radio days

During her military service, Morris was sent on some important missions. She had obtained the rank of Petty Officer Second Class and was assigned wartime security clearance posts, including securing specific East Coast lighthouses within District 7 in 1944. With a team of two other women, Morris had to take inventory and send reports directly to Washington. She had also been designated as part of a public relations team to promote Coast Guard recruitment via live radio while stationed in Jacksonville. A skilled writer, Morris had another duty, that of the anonymous gossip columnist for the Coast Guard’s private newspaper.

Anita P. Morris, wedding day
Anita P. Morris, wedding day

In the spring of 1944, Anita Paone met the man of her dreams, Edward F. Morris, a Kentucky boy who had also been serving in the Coast Guard and stationed in Jacksonville. They met in the chow hall at lunchtime on a 50-cent bet amongst the ladies on who would be the first of them to speak to the new gentleman. Anita won. Shortly afterwards, she took the young man home to Utica to meet her mother and announced, “This is the man I am going to marry.” And she did, a month after the war ended, on October 1, 1945. “We fell in love, and we both fell in love with Jacksonville,” she said.

Morris described her husband as “a good man. He was domesticated,” she said with gratitude because she never had to scrub a floor. “He did all the hard stuff,” she said. For a brief while, the couple lived in Washington, DC while Morris worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But they chose to return to Jacksonville to someday start a family.

Their Coast Guard tours over and times tight, the couple rented a room on Sorrento Street in San Marco. Morris went to work for the USO as an executive assistant to the director. Her husband went to work for General Motors as an accountant. They did not own a car. Every morning, they’d walk to the Square and eat breakfast at a little mom and pop diner—one egg over easy for Anita and a bowl of grits for Edward. They’d share a single slice of bacon and a single slice of toast. Then, they’d ride the bus downtown together for work.

In July 1950, Morris birthed twins, Melody Kathryn and Robin Andrew. After several rentals, the family of four built their forever home in San Jose Manor in July 1956, and a nursemaid was hired to look after the children. Mr. & Mrs. Morris became founders of San Jose Catholic Church in 1958 and remained devoted members for over four decades; she is now the oldest living member. “I can honestly say that we were a very happy family,” Morris said.

The Morris family
The Morris family

Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1961, Morris had spent a full month as an inpatient of Baptist Memorial Hospital, unable to walk. Doctors had initially thought she had a terminal brain tumor. But with extensive and painful physical therapy along with prayer, Morris was back to work within a year. And she volunteered with the Baptist Hospital Women’s Auxiliary, working in the gift shop from 1970 until 1983. Morris asked God why He had saved her. She felt His hand take hers and say, “You must pray, for everyone, just pray.” Morris vowed to do it.

Anita P. Morris, volunteer, Baptist Hospital Gift Shop '70-83
Anita P. Morris, volunteer, Baptist Hospital Gift Shop ’70-83

She visited and offered hope to those still hospitalized. She began lighting candles to accompany her prayers for those in need. To this day, Morris’s candle ministry continues. She is known for accepting calls, day or night. “As long as I can answer the phone, I will take prayer requests and light candles of hope. This is something I can do,” she said.

“The Coast Guard’s official motto is ‘Semper Paratus’ (Always Ready). That’s Anita Morris, always ready to show up, listen, and uplift. Utterly dependable, loyal, fun, and faithful,” said Melody Mallett of her mother.

“If you have Anita Morris as your friend, you don’t need any other friends,” said Margie Weinstein.

In the mid ’70s, Morris enjoyed taking interior art and design classes under R. Ward Lariscy Interiors, Inc. in San Marco after having studied the field at both Jones College and Jacksonville College. Always looking for ways to accentuate her home, at 97, she completely re-designed and custom remodeled her kitchen. Sketching with colored pencils, making pottery, and gardening were hobbies. Morris continues to enjoy drawing with charcoal, taking classes periodically with Pablo Rivera, a local artist. When she was still able, she dined and danced at the “ye olde” Le Chateau Restaurant in Atlantic Beach. “Always ready to let the good times roll,” said Mallett.

Morris considers the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche in St. Augustine one of her favorite places and continues to make frequent visits there with her family. Though COVID has curtailed attendance at live performing arts events, Morris looks forward to once again, in the not-too-distant future, returning to the Little Theatre in San Marco and the Jacksonville Civic Auditorium (currently, Times-Union Center). Leisure time with family and friends at Ponte Vedra Beach is also important to her.

Morris has been a tireless caregiver. She took care of her husband during his illness until he passed away in 1984 from lung cancer at the age of 64 after having worked 20 years for the post office. She cared for their son who passed away the following year at 34 years of age, succumbing to cancer as well. Her mother had moved from Upstate New York to live with Morris until her passing at 94 years old. Hospice staff dubbed Morris “God’s little iron butterfly.”

Because her mother, grandmother, and uncle had all died at 94, “I thought to myself when I saw 94 coming that I was getting ready to go. But I passed right by it, and I was shocked,” Morris said. Now, at 100, she attributes her age to having lived a good, clean life and doing the best she could with what she had. That’s the lesson she taught her children. “And now I’m telling it to myself,” she said.

Anita P. Morris with her grandchildren, September 2021
Anita P. Morris with her grandchildren, September 2021

For her 100th birthday, Morris had a small gathering in St. Augustine. She would have preferred something grander but took precautions due to the ongoing pandemic. “I’m just grateful to be here,” she said. The family rented a beach house. Both of her grown grandchildren were present—Tenley Dietrich from Jacksonville who owns a boutique in Avondale and Matthew Dietrich, a flight attendant with United Airlines, who flew in from Denver, Colorado.

Morris is a real live message of hope for modern times. With over a century behind her, she has shown that it is possible to survive war, poverty, illness, and heartache. And it is possible to do so with grace, honor, and optimism. “With God, all things are possible,” she said.

By Mary Wanser
Resident Community News

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