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Don Morris: Senior Olympian and Cold War Aviator Looks Back

A YouTube video posted in February features 87-year-old UCLA alumnus Don Morris (’68, Ed.D., Higher Education) shooting hoops with KSBY reporter Jessica Vo on the courts at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

“Look at the back of the rim,” said the former basketball coach to Vo, who succeeded in sinking the ball under his tutelage.

Looking far beyond an immediate goal is something that the 87-year-old Morris has mastered. The native Angeleno earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in education at Cal Poly, where he attended on an athletic scholarship and was inducted into the Cal Poly Athletic Hall of Fame in 2000.

When Morris was recruited to California Polytechnic College, he ranked third in the nation in community college hurdles and led the Mt. San Antonio College track team as captain. A graduate of the Class of 1950, he was honored as the Alumnus of the Year by Mt. San Antonio College in 2009 and spoke at the school’s commencement that year. Morris was also honored in 2009 with the California Community College Distinguished Alumni Award which was presented by Martha J. Kanter, then-undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education, and Mt. San Antonio College President John Nixon.

“When I was a student at Mt. SAC, I was almost the first person in my family to pursue a college degree,” says Morris. “That opportunity led me to Cal Poly State University and eventually to the ultimate opportunity of [attending] UCLA. My involvement in intercollegiate athletics track and field gave me a clearer understanding of my potential future in higher education.”

After graduation from Cal Poly, Morris went on to serve in the Navy based on an aircraft carrier. As an airship pilot, he helped track Russian submarines in the Atlantic during the beginning of the Cold War. Later in his military career, Morris helped train the trainers of Navy Seals and also reviewed curriculum at the U.S. Naval Academy. His service included active duty and service in the Naval Reserve for 42 years; he retired in 1990 with the rank of Commander.

Looking back, Morris feels that his Navy flight training and military career has “helped him make quick and careful decisions while taking risks, and that has been most helpful in his career in higher education.”

Upon returning to Cal Poly to get his master’s degree, Morris accepted the position of director of student housing; he later became the college’s personnel director. Morris went on to become the principal of the adult school program in San Luis Obispo, where he was responsible for the education of inmates at the California Men’s Colony Prison.

Following that, he was selected to serve as principal of Simi Valley Adult School, a career move that allowed him, his wife Jean, and their three young children to live in the Los Angeles basin so that he could attend UCLA. Morris earned his Ed.D. with the guidance of Professors B. Lamar Johnson and Fredrick C. Kintzer.

“I was able to enjoy a gratifying professional career because I learned a lot about myself and my academic abilities from these exceptional educators during my time at UCLA,” he says.

After graduation from UCLA, Morris was elected as president of the Simi Valley Parks and Recreation Board of Directors. He was also selected to be a Dean at Moorpark College. While at Moorpark, he also taught classes for University of California, Santa Barbara. He then received a call from California Polytechnic College President Bob Kennedy, who offered Morris the opportunity to return to his alma mater as the founding Dean of Extended Education.

“We had no university-level courses in extended education in this Central coast area,” recalls Morris, who retired from Cal Poly in 1990. “We began to help local teachers get credentials, as well as establishing programs in the University’s specialties including agriculture, engineering, architecture, and – even back in the 1970s – computers. A lot of people just wanted to know what was new and evolving in our society.

“Again, UCLA played a big part in my development. If I hadn’t had that experience and my doctoral degree, I never would have been able to move ahead in the field of education.”

As a higher education administrator propelling students to aspire and succeed, Morris also walked the walk. At 50, he was elected to the Board of Directors of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Education and as the President of the Cal Poly Retired Faculty and Staff Organization and served on the Sheriff’s Advisory Board.

In addition, the former track star began to coach a semi-professional basketball team in the San Luis Obispo area, and began to compete himself in the Senior Olympics (now known as the Senior Games) and the World Senior Games.

To date, Morris has won more than 100 gold medals in a variety of basketball events, although the free throw is his specialty. He has also played on nationally recognized senior basketball teams from New Jersey and Louisiana and has spoken to various clubs and organizations on the Central Coast about his experiences as a senior athlete.

“I want to stay in shape,” says Morris/ “I love the sociability of [sports] – you get to know everyone on a team, they get to know you. I go over to Cal Poly about three times a week and compete against the students. I challenge them and if they beat me, I give them a Gatorade or a Scratcher. When I tell them I’m 87, it really fires them up.”

Morris will be headed to the California State Senior Games in Pasadena in June to compete in the 85 to 90-year-old age category in free throw shooting, three-point shooting and the Hot Shot Shooting events. He also plans to travel to Las Vegas to compete in the Nevada State Senior Games Championships this summer.

In his retirement after 40-plus years in higher education, Morris continues to encourage college students through activities and networking with fellow and future Bruins in the Central Coast area. He also spends time with his family, which now includes seven grandchildren.

“I’ve been to dinners and lunches that UCLA Alumni Association puts on up here and it’s a very positive experience,” says Morris. “The kids are glad to meet people who have graduated from UCLA. We’re in a very rural area, so moving down there and going to UCLA is a very big deal for most of the students from the local high schools.

“I have really good memories about UCLA and how [the University] helped me with my career,” he says. “Without my doctorate, I never would have achieved even a portion of what life has allowed me to do… it has opened so many doors.”