Community Leaders of the Year: The McMorris Family

Editor’s Note: The video below was prepared for our 2019 Times Review Media Group People of the Year event in March. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, we were forced to postpone and ultimately cancel this year’s event. Every Sunday through early September we will be sharing the video presentations that would have celebrated each of the honorees that evening along with the original People of the Year features published in January. A special thank you to our event sponsor, People’s United Bank, for helping to make these awards possible each year

“Determination.” “Poise.” “Courage.” “Grace.”

These are some of the adjectives Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini used to describe the McMorris family after jurors convicted the Holbrook man who drove drunk and killed their 12-year-old son, Andrew, in 2018. 

For six grueling weeks, Alisa, John and Arianna McMorris were forced to relive the horrific day of Andrew’s death. They did so with composure. Most days, clutching a photo of their son, John and Alisa spoke to reporters, usually emphasizing one simple message: their son’s death was avoidable.

As the case proceeded through the judicial system, Alisa McMorris acknowledged that, regardless of the outcome, nothing would bring Andrew back. “So we need to find something,” she told members of the Riverhead Board of Education during a meeting this spring, urging them to bring a program about drunk driving to high school students. “I need to live [Andrew’s] light.”

As a family, they made it clear that his death was not in vain. Preventing similar tragedies has become their mission as they turn their grief into action and embody the definition of resilience and strength.

For their advocacy and dedication to keeping Andrew’s spirit alive, the McMorris family has been named the Riverhead News-Review’s Community Leaders of 2019.

“I am in awe of how, from the very onset, they consciously hid their personal grief because they wanted to protect the children from having to bear their grief,” said Chris Zukowski, a friend and neighbor who supported the family by attending court dates. “They have spent countless hours consoling the children and demonstrating that, while we love and miss Andrew, we honor him not by falling into the abyss, but by living and doing good things in his memory. John and Alisa have been tireless volunteers for years. That they have been able to exponentially increase that gift of themselves to the community defies explanation,” Ms. Zukowski said last week.

In March, on what would have been Andrew’s 13th birthday, the family unveiled the Andrew McMorris Foundation to raise awareness about the dangers of drunk and reckless driving, provide scholarship opportunities to students and encourage community service.

The family also teamed up with the District Attorney’s office to speak during “Choices and Consequences,” a program given to students at Shoreham-Wading River High School ahead of prom and graduation season. The 90-minute program emphasized the importance of safe driving, healthy decision-making and arranging alternate plans for transportation if teens find themselves in an uncomfortable situation.

“If we can change one person to make a better choice — to call their parents at 3 a.m. or make a better choice with a friend by taking their keys away, then I fulfilled my goal,” Ms. McMorris said.

The couple’s 17-year-old daughter, Arianna, is also making her voice heard as a role model for her peers. She helped bring a chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions to Shoreham-Wading River High School, noting that her mission was to make a positive impact in light of her sorrow.

Together with lawmakers and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the McMorris family is pushing for legislative change to lower the legal alcohol limit from the current 0.08% to 0.05%. “Drunk driving is a violent and preventable crime that claims too many lives,” John McMorris wrote in a post on the Andrew McMorris Foundation website. “If the laws change, thousands of lives will be saved. We will make a change and do all of this in Andrew’s honor and all of those whose lives have been affected by drunk driving,” Mr. McMorris said.

All of that just in the first year following Andrew’s death. On the anniversary, Sept. 30, 2019, several hundred supporters united for a pair of events to honor him, including “finishing the hike” and hosting a gala at the Suffolk Theater to raise money for scholarships, particularly for students with an interest in aviation or creative and performing arts — two of Andrew’s many pursuits.

John and Alisa McMorris share an embrace after he took the stand in the case against the man who killed their son. (Credit: Tara Smith)

Fourteen months after his death, justice prevailed as a jury found Thomas Murphy guilty on all nine counts related to the 2018 crash. And though their legal fight will press on, it will hopefully allow the three of them to forge forward into a new normal and begin to heal.

The greater Shoreham-Wading River community has been there for the family every step of the way. In a display of love, solidarity and support, three hundred carolers gathered outside of their Wading River home, surprising them for Christmas less than a week after the verdict.

Ms. McMorris has often said that grief has left her family shattered into “a million pieces.”

In Japanese culture, artisans practice a technique called “kintsugi,” which uses gold and lacquer to repair broken pottery, giving the pieces new life.

Perhaps their grief isn’t so different from this art form. Things fall apart — it’s what the McMorrises have done with the pieces that’s truly exceptional.

“That they have been able to exponentially increase that gift of themselves to the community defies explanation.”

Christine Zukowski, friend

Previous Winners

*The award was previously called Civic Person of the Year

2018: Charlene Mascia
2017: Ron Fisher
2016: Dwayne Eleazer and Larry Williams
2015: Tony Sammartano
2014: Thelma Booker
2013: Vince Taldone
2012: Georgette Keller
2011: Nancy Swett
2010: Rich Podlas and Chuck Thomas
2009: Tom Gahan
2008: Keith Lewin
2007: Open Arms and Bread & More Inn
2006: Mike Brewer
2005: Sid Bail
2004: Kathy Berezny
2003: Jill Lewis
2002: Chrissy Prete
2001: Joe & Gloria Ingegno
2000: George Klopfer & Lt. Col. Anthony Cristiano
1999: Louise Wilkinson
1998: Charles Ramsey, Gwen Mack
1997: Judy Jacunski
1996: Peter Danowski
1995: Sherry Patterson
1994: Barry Barth, Bobby Goodale
1993: Arnold Braunskill, Don Owen
1992: Bernice Mack
1991: Judy Weiner
1990: Nancy Gassert, Gwen Branch
1989: Betty Brown
1988: Paul Baker