Tragedy tugged at nation’s heartstrings
Madera County Historical Society Almost 50 years ago, these 10 Madera children were orphaned when their parents, Robert and Joyce Morris were killed in a car wreck caused by a drunk driver going the wrong way on State Route 99. From left to right are Judy, 16; Kathy, 17; Edward, 3; Michael 10; Jeffery, 8; Linda 15; Carole, 14; Robert and Roberta 11; and Theresa, 12.
The driver was drunk as he traveled north in the southbound lanes of Highway 99. When he reached Ashlan Avenue in Fresno, the inevitable happened; he struck several cars in the oncoming traffic, one of them head-on. The drunk driver was not seriously injured, but the last car to slam into the grinding, wrong-way crash carried the parents of 10 children to their deaths.
Almost overnight, the plight of the children who had been made orphans on that July night in 1968 gripped the heart of the nation.
It took awhile for the Highway Patrol to identify the couple who had been killed. They were 39 year-old Robert Morris and his 35 year-old wife Joyce from Madera. While the deceased were being transported to the morgue, their children were waiting in their home at 921 West Sixth Street for Mom and Dad to return. The couple had gone to Fresno to test drive an auto they wanted to buy.
Edward, the youngest, was 3, and Kathleen, the oldest, was 17. Four were students at Madera High School, and five attended St. Joachim’s. Little three-year-old Edward was the only one who wasn’t in school.
Later that night, someone knocked on the door. It was a policeman and a priest. They had the sad duty of telling the kids that their parents would not be coming home.
By morning, the community had moved into action. Family and friends tended to the immediate needs of the children. Their grandparents took up temporary residence with them, and Maderans started a trust fund for the kids. It was administered by Mrs. Morris’ father, Mr. Morris’ mother, and close family friend Mrs. Fred Massetti. The fund was established at Madera’s Bank of America.
The funeral Mass for Mr. and Mrs. Morris was held Friday, July 5. The children, although still obviously shaken and stoic throughout the service, made it plain to everyone that they were not going to be separated. “We will stick together,” Kathleen was heard to say.
The tragic story from Madera went out to the nation via the wire services and national television. The response, both local and from other areas, was immediate. One individual from Twain Harte offered his seven-bedroom home for as long as the family needed it. A couple from Taft drove to Madera to ask to be allowed to have the family live with them.
All the while, the trust fund continued to grow, with money coming in from all over the country. On July 9, it had $2,400. A day later, it grew to $4,000. Then the story grabbed the attention of Walter Cronkite. Terry Drinkwater, regional news reporter for CBS filed a national story, which was turned into a Cronkite special, and the Morris Family Fund drive went wild. Within a month, Mrs. Massetti could report $50,000 in the bank.
Then in August, public attention turned away from raising money for the kids to the issue of custody. A preliminary court order gave the grandparents temporary custody, but by August 16, two parties sought to be guardians for the children. In addition to Mr. and Mrs. Bolis Lachawiez, Mrs. Morris’ parents, Mrs. Gertrude Graves of Concord, Mr. Morris’ sister, filed for custody. A series of hearings followed in the Madera County Superior Court of Judge Jack Hammerberg.
Meanwhile the story of the plight of Madera’s Morris children became so well-known that a letter mailed in Brooklyn, N.Y. and addressed simply “Kathy Morris, San Joaquin Valley” arrived in Madera safe and sound.
On the morning of August 28, Judge Hammerberg rendered a decision on the custody arrangement. He ruled that all 10 Morris children would be placed in the care of their paternal uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Graves of Concord. Hammerberg said the court was indebted to the Lachawiezs, maternal grandparents of the children, who had stayed in the Morris home since the death of the parents. The judge commended the grandparents for “a great deal of love and affection.”
However, in consideration of the Lachawiez’s age (They were in their 60s) and the age of the youngest child, Hammerberg reasoned the move to Concord with the Graves would work best.
Under the proceedings, however, legal custody and guardianship of the children remained with the court, and the Madera County probation and welfare departments shared responsibility for the care, custody, and control of the family.
Jurisdiction of the $50,000 trust fund also moved to the court.
Kathy Morris, the oldest of the children and the one who had issued the famous vow that the children would stay together, said the family would adjust to the change in residences. She mentioned the swimming pool at the Graves home and “kids all over the place.” According to Barbara Brown, the Tribune reporter who covered the story, “The children seemed generally pleased with the outcome of the long-delayed court action.
That evening, the Morris story went national again as UPI, AP, CBS, and NBC converged on the Madera County Government Center to put a period at the end of the sentence in a story of unbelievable courage and caring.