Leona S. Morris, a former community college educator who was in her 70s when she came out of retirement in the 1980s to become WJZ-TV’s senior citizen correspondent, died Dec. 23 in her sleep at her Pikesville condominium.
She was 104.
“Leona was a legitimate member of the Eyewitness News team,” said Marty Bass, longtime WJZ-TV personality and a friend.
“She opened the eyes of parents and baby boomers to the world of seniors and she wanted to help them. She cared, and the guys she worked with, like her longtime cameraman Wayne Butrow, felt her energy,” he said. “She was on the cutting edge and brought a new way of looking at senior life.”
Leona Sara Morris, who was born in Baltimore, was the daughter of Samuel Morris, a merchant, and his wife, Sadie Morris, a homemaker.
Miss Morris grew up in small towns in Virginia, the Eastern Shore and Union Bridge, before returning to Baltimore, where she graduated in 1931 from Western High School.
She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Goucher College in 1935 with a degree in history and received a master’s degree in the same subject in 1937 from the University of Maryland, College Park.
Miss Morris also studied at Harvard University, the Johns Hopkins University, American University, San Francisco State University, the University of Michigan and the University of Toronto.
Miss Morris began teaching English and history in 1940 in Baltimore public schools, Southern High School and Polytechnic Institute, and seven years later joined the original faculty of what was then the newly established Baltimore Junior College as an instructor in history and sociology.
She was named assistant dean of the college in 1958, a position she held for two years, until being appointed dean of student personnel in 1960 at what eventually became the Community College of Baltimore, and in 1992, Baltimore City Community College.
After 13 years, she was lured out of retirement when a retired businessman and acquaintance who had read a story about a 65-year-old Los Angeles woman had been hired by a local station to be their senior citizen beat reporter wrote to officials at WJZ-TV suggesting that Baltimore needed to do the same thing.
“I think it’s hysterical that at this age, I’m starting a new career,” she said in a Baltimore Sun interview in 1987.
“She may be the oldest reporter on television. No one keeps exact statistics, but neither Broadcasting magazine nor the Radio-Television News Directors Association has heard of anyone older,” the newspaper reported.
A 1987 People magazine interview described her as “a gray-haired fireball who believes that ‘you’re only as young as you feel and I feel like I’m in my early 50s,’ ”
When it came to the medium of television, Miss Morris wasn’t exactly a greenhorn, having conducted a 10-week series on propaganda which aired on WBAL-TV in 1955, but she admitted that the hardest part of her job was writing for TV. “I’m too pedantic,” she told The Sun.
“On the set at WJZ, her eyes have occasionally wandered to the wrong camera, and she has given her director minor fits by ad-libbing too much instead of reading her script as written on the Tele-PrompTer,” the newspaper observed, but found favor with her work.
Topics Miss Morris covered in her weekly reports included medical, social and financial issues for the elderly.
“I like to stress the positive without being too Pollyanna-ish,” she told People magazine.
“She was good at talking to people and not at them,” Mr. Bass said. “She had great camaraderie and always contributed when she was in the newsroom. This was her beat and she was most proud of it”
“She never drove a car and traveled by streetcar, bus, or walked, and she thought that might be a problem for WJZ when they offered her the job but reassured her they would get her to assignments,” said her niece, Lynne Emery of Towson.
“And she didn’t mind calling people for rides. She never had a problem with that,” her niece said. “She was a woman who had a lot of chutzpah and was known for it.”
Miss Morris enjoyed being in the swing of things at WJZ.
“Leona was one of the guys, and they learned how to tone down their language and some of their stories, which they saved for the cafeteria,” Mr. Bass said with a laugh. “She was outgoing, classy and friendly. She was really something.”
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She was a longtime member of Oheb Shalom Congregation and served as its first woman president from 1983 to 1985. She was listed in the National Register of Prominent Americans and International Notables, Two Thousand Woman of Achievement, Who’s Who of American Women, Who’s Who in the East and Who’s Who in American Colleges and University Administration.
As she attained centenarian status, her niece said, Miss Morris never smoked and occasionally enjoyed a drink.
“She didn’t follow a special diet but watched what she ate,” Ms. Emery said. “She did little exercise but had really good genes.”
Funeral services were held Dec. 27 at Sol Levinson & Bros. in Pikesville.