Mark Burrows Morley: A Life to Be Celebrated

A Daughter's Remembrance

Posted In: Culture, Community Profiles,   From Issue 730   By: Robert E Martin

11th August, 2011     0

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”   - Mark Twain

When Mark Burrows Morley collided with the forces of nature in a tragic sailboat accident during the Chicago to Mackinac race on July 18th, a significant benefactor and notable presence – not only to his family, but to the community that he fostered, invested, and cultivated – was snatched prematurely by the waves of mortality.

Employed as a Trade Show Manager/Designer/ Specifier with Morley Companies, committed to benefiting both the arts & cultural community within Saginaw County through his work with the Morley Foundation, and a respected denizen of the sailing community – not only for his acumen and skill on the seas, but more importantly for his willingness to help others in need – in many ways Mark’s life was epitomized by the challenge and freedom found on open waters.

In The Old Man & the Sea, Ernest Hemingway wrote how: ‘The House was built on the highest part of the narrow tongue of land between the harbor and the open sea. It had lasted through three hurricanes and it was built solid as a ship.”  And in many ways, this rings true for Mark and his understanding of the lineage and responsibility that he was born into. The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.

These qualities were apparent with the care he took towards fostering extensive community service to Saginaw County, not only as President of the Morley Foundation, but as a board member for the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra, the Delta College Foundation, and the Saginaw Club; as well as his broader work with The Council of Michigan Foundations.

But apart from all of his achievement, perhaps the best test of a man’s success resides within the palpable recess of memory pulsating within those closest to him, circulating oxygen throughout the system so that the value of one’s life colors despondence and loss with fresh blossoms of hope, truth, optimism, and faith in the future.

Such is the case for Sage Morley, Mark’s only daughter.

When I approached Sage about getting together to reflect upon qualities about her father that might paint a more intimate and total portrait of attributes that might not be as readily apparent to business colleagues, members of the Arts community, or even friends that knew him well, she graciously and courageously agreed, beginning with a story that she feels ties many of his estimable attributes together.

“My father knew everything and knew how to make everything. All my school projects were so much cooler than everybody else’s because he would always make it a point to help me,” she reflects.

“Once when I was attending Handley School, we were asked to draw pictures of the school, only he made a full scale three dimensional model of it. Consequently, my project was the coolest one submitted. He possessed a tremendous amount of artistic ability and would do things like this with virtually no research. He was amazing in that sense.”

“Another time, when I was attending SASA, every year we would make a haunted house that would serve as a fundraiser for the school.  One year I asked him if he could build me a guillotine for the haunted house, and he said, ‘Yep, no problem’. The next thing I knew, he had built a fully functional guillotine for me, with no research. He had this prior knowledge and sense of detail and I had no idea where it came from.”

“Since his passing, I’ve been having strong memories that are pretty specific,” she continues, “but they all stem from me sharing time with him at the things he loved the most – driving around in one of the cars he was always working upon, sailing, washing cars in the driveway. When it was stormy, we always used to sit on the porch of our Boathouse at Higgins Lake and watch storms carry the boats away. Sailing was a pivotal part of his life.”

When asked how old she was when her father introduced her to sailing, Sage proudly responds: “I won the ‘Around-the-Mackinac’ race when I was four years-old.  I distinctly remember being on the boat and my Dad showing me what to do. I can’t say I was very good at it, being so young. But today if I were stranded on an island, I could probably figure it out.”

And what of specific advice that he imparted? Are there specific things that he instilled within her?

“He gave more advice than I could ever give an opinion on, but I’ve been thinking of that lately – what’s the most important lesson he taught me. The one thing that keeps popping up is how he would always tell me to be very careful not to poop in my own nest because I have to live in it.”

When Mark’s boat the WingNuts went down in unexpected 100 mph winds, did Sage ever harbor any trepidations about her father’s safety when he would sail or race? “Honestly, I never thought about it. It never would have crossed my mind that it could possibly be dangerous because nothing ever happened on that boat.  The first time I sailed with him on WingNuts I thought it was terrifying at first, because it’s a racing boat and went fast and would keel to the side a lot, which was scary. But it was supposed to do that.”

“The funny thing is, even when I was very little, we would take the Sunfish out and my Dad would get mad that we never got anywhere because all I wanted to do was flip the boat, which sounds weird now; but even back then, safety never crossed my mind, because it was never scary sailing with him. Never once was I worried.”

Given that another of Mark’s great passions centered upon his Classic Car collection, Sage shifts to how his fondness for taking things apart and re-assembling them was also reflective of his desire to rebuild the Arts and the business community. “He had six cars and two motorcycles and would always be working on restoring them all.  He liked to take things apart and put them back together and take beautiful machinery that wasn’t working and make it functional and mobile.”

“He introduced me to the Arts. He had all the supplies and was an incredible illustrator,” she continues. “I remember when I was about 4-years old, sitting on his lap, and he would do these fantastic drawings with no formal training.  I found his portfolio the other day from High School that was absolutely amazing.”

“As for music, he listened to it constantly around the house. I would make fun of him because when I started choir, my Mom wondered why I was able to sing. I told her that I couldn’t sing really, but that I got my approach to singing from Dad. She said, ‘He doesn’t sing well, he just sings a lot’. And that’s pretty much true. He had eclectic musical tastes and would listen to everything from Reggae to Folk to Classical music to Led Zeppelin, and he would sing along to everything. Even if he didn’t know a song, he’d pretend that he did and sing along. He also learned saxophone and so did I. I found a trophy that he won playing sax from going to the Nationals in high school.”

So how does Sage hope that people remember her father?

“A lot of different ways,” she reflects. “He had so many different aspects to him. Sailors will remember him as a sailor, business people as the Renaissance man that could do anything, the community for all that he did for it, and I will remember him for his storytelling and his goofy laugh. What’s interesting is there is so many aspects people didn’t know about – the sailors didn’t know what he did at The Morley Foundation, and the Foundation probably didn’t know what a fine artist he was himself.  He also made the most remarkable jewelry.”

“The last time I saw him was the day before he left for the Mackinac race. I was supposed to go back to Chicago to start the school year and he picked me up to get my car fixed because he wanted to get it as safe as possible before he left for the race.”

“Now I’m thinking, who’s going to fix my cars? Who’s going to fix everything? He has an MG Midget Convertible that he built out of a box when he was 14-years old. When I turned 16 he gave it to me when I graduated on the condition that I would learn how to fix it with him.”

“But my strongest memories will always be of his sense of humor,” concludes Sage. “He would take these sophisticated pictures and then do something goofy in one of them that would crack me up. I remember once we sat on a big tree trunk and he got brown tree sap on his pants, so we went along and he started picking at his butt pretending that he had an accident,” she laughs.

“He was just a funny guy. He got to his stage of ‘old guy-ness’ where he didn’t care what people thought.  Actions spoke louder than appearances and all that mattered was that he got a smile out of me.”

When it comes to the ‘Religion of a Sailor’, perhaps William Butler Yeats summed it up best: “A sea captain when he stands upon the bridge, or looks out from his deck-house, thinks much about God and about the world. Away in the valley yonder among the corn and the poppies men may well forget all things except the warmth of the sun upon the face, and the kind shadow under the hedge; but he who journeys through storm and darkness must need think and think. As is the way with sailors, speaking in queer sea manner of God and the world, and up through all his words broke the hard energy of his calling.”   


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