AUGUSTA – After spending 30 years in the Navy, retiring as a senior officer, John Morris headed back to school — the police academy, to be exact.
He was 50 years old and wanted to be police chief in Richmond.
The only thing standing in his way was a 12-week course at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.
“That first day there, when I was standing in my blue Dickies, and a state police officer younger than my oldest son was teaching me how to salute,” he said, “I remember saying, ‘Oh please, dear God, don’t let any of my Navy friends know about this.’ “
Despite being 30 years older than many of the future officers, Morris finished first in his class and was selected class president. He met all of the physical demands, running at least a couple of miles every weekend just to ensure that he would be in shape to pass all of the tests.
Morris spent four years as police chief in Richmond before moving on to Waterville, where he served as police chief for 13 years.
It was there that he met a city councilor named Paul LePage — a man who would become governor after Morris and others in a small group spent months planning his rise to power.
Late last month, Morris, 71, became head of the state Department of Public Safety, getting unanimous approval from the Maine Senate. He was one of the first two appointments Le-Page made after his November election.
“John and I have just a great relationship,” LePage said at the time. “While he was police chief and I was mayor, we fought like cats and dogs — him for more money, me for less money. He then retired and when I announced I was going to run for governor, he was one of the first people that called me and said, ‘What can I do to help?’ “
State Rep. Anne Haskell, a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, says she was initially skeptical when rumors of Morris’ nomination began circulating.
“When you hear that, absent the information, you think that’s a pretty close relationship,” said Haskell, D-Portland. “But once I took a look at his resume and checked in with those who had worked with him, I thought he was well-qualified to do the job.”
Morris, of West Gardiner, feels confident he can lead the 634 employees at the department, which has an annual budget of $95 million.
Those who have worked with him describe him as a no-nonsense kind of person who gets things done.
“John was a pretty straightforward guy,” said Lois Galgay Reckitt, director of Family Crisis Services, a Portland agency that supports victims of domestic abuse. “He tends not to mince words. He gives you the straight scoop as he sees it.”
Reckitt spent eight years sitting next to Morris when they served on the Maine Justice Assistance Council, which distributes funds from federal grants, including money to help victims of domestic violence.
“We didn’t always agree, but he had the capacity to disagree and come back to the table again,” she said.
EARLY YEARS AND NAVY
A Massachusetts native, Morris spent significant amounts of time with his grandparents in East Cambridge, just one train stop away from where his parents lived in Everett.
His maternal grandparents had emigrated from Poland after World War I, and East Cambridge was “a very Polish community,” he said.
“There was the Polish butcher, the baker, and if you didn’t speak Polish or Lithuanian, you didn’t get along there,” he said.
As a child, Morris knew enough Polish to get along in the community. The son of a foundry worker and a waitress, he was the oldest of three children.
After graduating from Everett High School, Morris attended Massachusetts Maritime Academy — a move he described as best for his family, because they couldn’t afford to send him to college.
That’s where he was commissioned as an officer in the Navy. He went on active duty in 1960.
His first mission was to Antarctica, where he served on an ice-breaking ship and explored the region.
“We went places that no person had ever been before,” he said.
A bachelor at the time, Morris loved the adventure and decided to make the Navy his career. So he went to submarine school.
It was while training in Groton, Conn., that he met his wife, Kay, a local elementary school teacher. This fall, they will celebrate their 47th wedding anniversary.
After serving on diesel submarines for four years, Morris then moved on to destroyers.
He served two six-month tours of duty in Vietnam on destroyers — one on a gun line and another on search and rescue near Hanoi.
“We provided the gunfire support for helicopters going in to pick up our downed aviators,” he said.
After he graduated from the Navy post-graduate school with an undergraduate degree in international relations and a master’s degree in management, he was sent to Vietnam to serve inside the country for one year. There, he worked for the Army in psychological warfare.
He remembers it as a difficult time to be away from his family. By then, he and Kay had three children, the oldest of whom was in first grade. There were no phone calls, e-mail or Skype.
“My wife would have the three children make a little cassette tape,” he said. “I’d get them about three weeks later, and I would respond in kind and send them home to them.”
After Vietnam, Morris got additional training in Norfolk, Va., on international strategy and tactics.
That led to becoming a commanding officer of his own ship at age 39, the USS Cayuga out of San Diego. At times, the tank landing ship had as many as 550 troops aboard.
When he made captain — the equivalent of colonel in the Army — he was named commander of the only Navy base in South Korea. He moved his family there for three years in the early 1980s, while he worked as liaison between the Navy and the Korean navy.
Later, the family lived in Malaysia for three years, a tour that Morris remembers fondly. There, he worked with the Drug Enforcement Administration to try to reduce the flow of narcotics out of the region.
By then, Morris had served 30 years in the Navy. It was time to retire and do something different.
“My wife and I decided we wanted to come back to northern New England,” he said. “We wanted to come home.”
BACK IN MAINE
They landed in Richmond, where Morris served as police chief for four years. From there, he moved to Waterville.
Morris was two years into his tenure as chief when one of the most devastating crimes in Maine occurred there. It’s an incident he doesn’t believe the community has recovered from to this day.
It was Jan. 27, 1996. Morris was driving from Waterville to his West Gardiner home that Saturday around 6 p.m., when his pager went off. He was only about a mile from home, so he decided to just call the office once he got there.
His wife met him in the driveway with a phone and told him to call in right away.
Two nuns had been murdered at the Servants of the Blessed Sacrament chapel, and two others were seriously injured.
“That was a horrific scene,” he said. “Besides the two deaths, some of the other nuns were hurt so bad they never truly recovered.”
Mark Bechard was arrested while he was attacking a nun with a statue of the Virgin Mary. He was later found not guilty by reason of insanity, was sent to the state psychiatric hospital and has since earned some privileges to be in the community.
National media descended on Waterville for a week after the incident.
Morris began a close relationship with the nuns as he tried to help them once again feel safe in their sanctuary.
“The city never really recovered from that,” he said. “At least while I was there.”
The murders led Morris to work more closely with mental health professionals and prompted the establishment of what’s known as “the Midnight Team.” Mental health crisis counselors now ride with police from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. to help address a variety of issues.
“I know that that team has saved lives,” he said. “I know other cities emulated us.”
Current Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey worked for Morris for more than a decade. He described him as smart, demanding and fair.
Morris brought community policing to Waterville and had other innovative ideas, Massey said.
“He demanded from me loyalty and commitment,” Massey said. “But he didn’t want a yes man. He wanted to know if I thought what he was doing was the right thing.”
Morris also struck up a friendship with Dr. Steve Diaz, who worked in the emergency room at MaineGeneral Medical Center while Morris was chief. Diaz, now a vice president at the hospital, said he and Morris used to meet for coffee in the mornings.
While Morris can seem gruff on first meeting, Diaz said it’s not his true personality.
“The gruff part is his military exterior,” he said. “It’s not at all how he conducts himself. He’s not the ‘my way or the highway’ kind of guy.”
In 2008, Morris retired from the city and went on to teach courses at Thomas College.
“Then I got hooked up with the governor and started that 16-month journey,” he said.
FORAY INTO POLITICS
As chief of staff, Morris ran LePage’s primary campaign from a laptop and cell phone in his bedroom. As a military officer and former police chief, he’d never before been able to get involved in political activities.
“There were five of us who met Sunday mornings at his kitchen table, truly,” he said.
It wasn’t until after LePage’s November win that he and the governor began to talk about the possibility of Morris taking over at Public Safety, Morris said.
Today, his office at Public Safety headquarters in Augusta features three of his wife’s watercolor paintings on one wall, and reminders of his time in the military on the other. There’s a red-and-white-striped flag with a snake and the words “Don’t Tread on Me.”
Morris said the flag — the design of the original Navy flag — once flew on one of his ships.
His office also features the iconic photo of a sailor kissing a young nurse at a Times Square celebration marking the end of World War II, and his retirement certificate from the Navy.
He knows his new job will challenge him in different ways, especially with a difficult state budget, 30 vacant trooper positions, and a new round of retirements expected in the next few months.
The view from his office — a giant snow mound that will someday soon become a view of the parking lot — is quite different from seeing the penguins in Antarctica or the high seas of the Pacific. But Morris said he’s looking forward to the newest adventure in his life.
“The governor trusts me,” he said. “I sometimes think people overlook the fact that admirals, the president and governors have to put people close to them that they trust.”
MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: