Caspar Morris, 65, an advocate for the homeless who for decades mentored families and children in West Philadelphia, died Thursday, Nov. 21, of complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at Bryn Mawr Hospital.
For more than 25 years, Mr. Morris worked for the People’s Emergency Center (PEC), a nonprofit in the city’s Powelton section that provides housing, job training, and other support to families experiencing homelessness.
A high school dropout, Mr. Morris never attended college or studied social work. But empathy came naturally, relatives and colleagues said.
“He had the utmost respect for anyone he came across,” said Gloria Guard, a former director of the PEC. “He knew how to talk to people, but more than that, he knew how to listen to people.”
Raised in Gladwyne, Mr. Morris was the oldest of four children born to Caspar Morris Jr., a lawyer, and Cassandra Morris. The children grew up privileged, though their father died when Mr. Morris was 15, said brother Walter.
As a student, Mr. Morris chafed against rules and was bored by some classes, his brother said. But he was intelligent and curious, and his parents sometimes resorted to taking away his books as punishment.
He attended Harriton High School but left as soon as he turned 18, his brother said. After that, a friend suggested he try volunteering at Voyage House, a social services agency in Philadelphia. There, Mr. Morris tapped into his passion for connecting with people who were in crisis.
“He didn’t know what homelessness was or poverty was,” his brother said. "But he’s always been a champion of individuals. He would delight in being able to see people for who they were. I imagine people intuited that about him, that abiding respect for people’s dignity and their humanity.”
In 1981, he got a job at the People’s Emergency Center. He lived a few blocks away and walked to work, never arriving before 10:30 or 11 a.m., Guard said.
Standing 6-foot-5, often dressed in black, and speaking in a sonorous voice, he could be imposing. But he became known as a mentor, a sounding board, and even a father figure to clients as he helped them navigate rough patches in their lives.
“These kids at the center would see someone who looked seven feet tall,” Walter Morris said. “But he cared about them, and then they’d see that.”
A voracious reader, a lover of music, and a night owl who disliked early mornings, Mr. Morris ultimately got his GED but never considered higher education, even as he found himself working alongside colleagues with multiple degrees. He declared himself a lifelong bachelor and remained a heavy smoker even as it began to catch up with him in later years, his brother said.
He cherished living in the city and attending rock, jazz, and blues concerts — he saw the Who and the Rolling Stones numerous times. He also loved sailing on the ocean in places such as Martha’s Vineyard, and playing poker with family.
After leaving the PEC in 2008, Mr. Morris did some consulting work for other agencies. About two years ago, he developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but stayed as active as possible, his brother said. He saw the Chick Corea Trio with his sister, Laura, last month at the Kimmel Center.
In addition to his brother and sister, he is survived by a brother, Christopher, and nieces and nephews.
A memorial celebration will be held in January in West Philadelphia, his family said.
Donations may be made to the Southern Poverty Law Center at splcenter.org.