A Local Life: J. Roger Morris, 75

A patriarch of D.C. volleyball and its subculture

J. Roger Morris successfully lobbied the National Park Service to let him design and maintain courts near the Lincoln Memorial.
J. Roger Morris successfully lobbied the National Park Service to let him design and maintain courts near the Lincoln Memorial. (Family Photo)
By T. Rees Shapiro
Sunday, April 25, 2010

In the late 1970s, J. Roger Morris was a California volleyball bum stuck in a bureaucratic job itching for some sand between his toes. But there was one problem: He was in Washington, where there isn't a beach -- much less a sand volleyball court -- in sight.

Undeterred, Mr. Morris is widely credited with cultivating a volleyball subculture in Washington when he lobbied the National Park Service to let him design and maintain the 11 sand courts that sit near the Lincoln Memorial by the Potomac River.

Mr. Morris, 75, died of liver cancer April 11 at his home in Santa Cruz, Calif., after living in the Washington area for more than 20 years, spending most of his free time tending to his courts.

As a lean teen on the Santa Monica beach volleyball circuit, Mr. Morris established himself as a solid doubles player who had an enviable spike, despite his 6-foot stature.

He had moved to the Washington area in 1974 to take a job at the Environmental Protection Agency. Later, at the Energy Department, he worked as a policy analyst, specializing in air quality.

Life behind a desk was too stuffy for his tastes. He dreamed of being able to lounge outside and catch some rays while working up a sweat in front of the net.

Fed up, and without an outlet for his frustration, Mr. Morris decided to get in touch with officials at the National Park Service. Highlighting his engineering background and master's degree in urban planning, Mr. Morris was granted permission to lay out the design for the courts, as long as he would help build them and care for them.

For more than 20 years, Mr. Morris brought his own lawn mower from home to cut around the edges of the courts and raked the sand when needed. Bedecked in his signature white, floppy hat and sunglasses, Mr. Morris helped administer summer doubles tournaments on the courts, attracting participants from up and down the East Coast.

While taking a cab to Washington National Airport, Mr. Morris's daughter, Bonnie, told the cabbie that her father had built the courts they were driving past.

"Your father is a great man," he told her, adding that his own daughter had grown up playing on the courts and had received an athletic scholarship to play volleyball in college -- the first in the family to earn a degree.

John Roger Morris, a Los Angeles native, received a bachelor's degree in engineering from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1959 and received a master's degree in urban planning from the University of Southern California in 1971.

Shortly after, he and his family moved to Durham, N.C., where he worked for the EPA. He was promoted three years later and moved to Washington. He retired from the Energy Department in 1995.

In addition to his daughter, Bonnie, of Washington, survivors include his wife of 51 years, Myra Schiller Morris of Santa Cruz; a son, John Morris of Mammoth Lakes, Calif.; a sister; and a granddaughter.

Mr. Morris retired to Santa Cruz in 1995 but not before leaving a legacy on the volleyball courts.

In 1985, Geraldine Shannon and Dennis O'Connor were just a couple of Washington singles looking for a place to wind down after work and maybe meet some new friends. They were introduced on Mr. Morris's volleyball courts and were married in 1987. They have two children, and their son, Patrick, plays club volleyball at Virginia Tech.

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