Columbus, Ohio USA
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Church Leader Richard W. Morris (1932-2017)

Columbus First Brethren Church closes after more than a century of worship

by Margaret Marten
November/December 2017 Issue

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Richard Morris

Richard W. Morris, a longstanding member of the Harrison West community passed away on June 2, 2017 at the age of 84, and the neighborhood church he pastored for 30 years closed two months later. His career as a pastor at First Brethren Church, located at W. 3rd and Oregon avenues, began in 1986 while working at Columbus Hardware as an outside salesman – a job he maintained for 41 years. The former hardware store was located in Grandview on W. Fifth Avenue where Fortin Ironworks is now operating. Although Morris did not receive a formal seminary education, he studied with the Brethren denomination and was invited to lead the Columbus congregation because of his deep, long-lasting ties to the church.

Morris was raised in Harrison West and graduated from Central High School. He began attending the First Brethren Church as a toddler with his neighbor, Mrs. Ball, when the congregation was led by Rev. D.R. Murray, who served for some 50 years beginning in December 1929. Rev. Murray had a profound impact on Morris, according to Thomas W. Brown, who stepped in as an interim pastor this year and who, like Morris, was raised in the church.

“I knew him too,” said Brown about Murray. “And he had a profound impact on me [as well].”

Dorothy Wilkie, who, at 91, is the oldest living member of the church when it closed, knew both Murray and Morris. She said Murray hired Morris to clean the church for $3 a week when he was 11 years old. “He thought he was rich when he got that three dollars,” she said. “He [Murray] said ‘if you stay around here and do what I ask you to do, some day you’ll be pastor of this church,’ and he was.”

In addition to being personable and easygoing, Rev. Murray was noted for developing a vacation bible school that became extremely popular. “It was very very successful. There were hundred of kids that came to those,” said Brown. When Morris took over, he and his wife continued that legacy. “Richard and Pat did a lot of great things with the kids there.”

Morris married Patricia Troutman in 1952 following her graduation from high school – a year after his own. A few years later, they moved into a house across the street from the church at 470 W. Third Avenue. He worked for the Lennox Furnace Co. and she was a homemaker. They had four boys and were active in the church teaching Sunday School and vacation bible school. The couple formed a girls group, Little Women, and a Boys Brigade for neighborhood children to engage in weekly crafts and bible study, and organized camping trips.

Wilkie was a single mother with two girls, 2 and 3 years old, when she started attending the church. “He was just like a big brother to me, and his wife was like a sister,” she said. “He helped me with the girls when they were growing up, and they would listen to him where they wouldn’t to me.” The whole family loved him. “He helped me a lot with my brother. My brother lived with me 32 years, and he was slow. He and Richard got along just fine. We thought there was nobody like Richard, nobody. He’d do anything in the world for you if he could.”

When asked about his father, David, the eldest, recalled him as a hard worker and was quick to mention the swimming classes. Morris was an athlete – a wrestler in high school and worked as a swimming instructor and a lifeguard with the YMCA for many years. Brown also recalls Morris’s swimming career and how he himself joined in with other church members for swim parties Morris organized at the YMCA downtown. In fact that’s where Morris met his future wife – while she was working the lunch counter.

The family moved out of the neighborhood in 1967, but continued to attend the Harrison West church, and, of course, twenty years later Morris would be leading the congregation. He served on the executive board for a number of years, was director of the Ohio District Conference of Brethren Churches, a member of the Ohio District Board of Oversight that interviewed pastors for positions.

He was a member of The Ohio Christian Music Association, volunteering as a singer and emcee for their programs that included a presence at the Ohio State Fair every year. He loved country-western music.

Morris’s roots in the Harrison West neighborhood were strong, and his interest in the community unwavering. “He was a very smart man,” said Brown. “Extremely intelligent. He was devoted to children, to making sure that young people were exposed to the right things and stayed out of trouble.”

His son Tim shared those sentiments: “He did quite a good job raising us. He had us go to church when we were little, and tried to plant our feet in the right direction. His heart was in the right place.”

Rob Harris, a past Harrison West Society president, said Morris attended most meetings and cared deeply about the neighborhood. “He worked side by side with our greatest neighborhood leader Mary Funk to see that Harrison Park had a playground,” said Harris. Similarly, back in the ‘80s when drug dealers were a problem in the Harrison West Memorial Park, he worked with the community to bring playground equipment into the space to help ward them off. “The dealers soon stopped going to the park and eventually left the neighborhood,” Harris said. “All in all, he is dearly missed, for his neighborhood dedication lives on today.”

Morris is survived by his four sons: Dave (Tonda), Jim (Lisa), Jon (Kari), and Tim. Condolences can be mailed to the family at 4915 Botsford Dr., Columbus, OH 43232

Columbus First Brethren Church located at 473 W. Third Avenue in Harrison West, Ohio. Photo © Joel Knepp

The Columbus First Brethren Church celebrated its 100th Anniversary in 2011. The congregation actually launched in 1902, but it wasn’t until 1910 that the property at 473 W. Third Ave. was purchased. Although only the basement level of the church was completed by 1911, the cornerstone was laid, hence the reason for the 100th anniversary celebration in 2011. It would take another three years for the upper level of the building to be finished, and a formal dedication service was held in September 1914 for the completed church. As a result of dwindling membership and Pastor Morris’s passing this year, the church closed. On August 6, 2017, about 100 members, former members and friends gathered together while interim pastor Thomas W. Brown conducted the final service.

© 2017 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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