Morris Yachts founder dies of lung cancer at 68

Posted Dec. 09, 2008, at 9:35 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:54 a.m.

SOUTHWEST HARBOR, Maine — A local man who started building boats in his backyard 36 years ago and grew the effort into a yacht company that employs 130 people died Sunday.

Thomas deWitt Cuyler Morris was 68 years old.

The cause of death was lung cancer, according to a paid obituary published Tuesday in the Bangor Daily News.

Cuyler Morris, Morris’ son, said Tuesday that his father had been sick for about 18 months.

According to Cuyler Morris, his father started the company in 1972, shortly after he moved his young family from Philadelphia to Maine, where his father had spent his summers as a youth. He said his father worked in a variety of fields in Philadelphia, including marine insurance, banking and in a shipyard before deciding to become an entrepreneur.

Family legend has it that Morris’ final job in Philadelphia, at a local shipyard, was a brief one, according to his son.

“He was there for about three days when his boss said, ‘Tom, I’m going to do you a favor and fire you today,’” Cuyler Morris said.

The boss saw that Morris had his own ideas about doing things and that he would be better off working for himself — an insight that Morris quickly grew to appreciate, the son said. He added that the same man ended up buying one of his father’s boats a few years later.

Morris started out finishing fiberglass Friendship sloops for local boat builder Jarvis Newman and then built his own shop behind his family’s home on High Road. In 1974, he collaborated with designer Chuck Paine of Tenants Harbor on a Frances 26, a collaboration that would grow to include other models over the next several decades.

John Hanson, publisher of Maine Boats Homes & Harbors magazine, said Tuesday that he first met Morris in 1973. He said Morris’ love of his craft was evident in his work.

“Tom knew beauty. All the boats he ever did were beautiful inside and out,” Hanson said. “His boats were extraordinary in the way they were finished. He built a fabulous company in Southwest Harbor.”

Thomas Morris handed the company over to his son in 2001 and went into semiretirement, or pretended to, anyway, according to his son.

For the past several years, Morris took on a role of delivering finished Morris yachts to their owners. His first such trip after his son took over the company also was his first trans-Atlantic sail, delivering a Morris 46 to Scotland, according to the company.

Cuyler Morris said that what drove his father to be a successful boat builder was a desire and love for sailing.

“That was his life and passion and what he lived for,” he said. “As long as he was living, he was never going to be retired.”

Morris Yachts has three sites, all on Mount Desert Island. Its production facility is in Trenton and it has service yards in Bass Harbor and in Northeast Harbor.

According to Marnie Read, spokeswoman for the company, the company has built nearly 300 boats since its founding. Those boats, she said, have been delivered to owners “all over the world.”

A memorial service for Morris is scheduled for 3 p.m. Monday, Dec. 15, at the company’s production facility off Route 3 in Trenton, next to the Hancock County airport. The service is open to the public, according to Read.

More information on Morris can be found at the company Web site, www.morrisyachts.com.

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