A little change goes a long way

| June 14, 2013

Frances Kirven Morse ’68, senior picture

When Frances Kirven Morse ’68 arrived at Sweet Briar, the times they were a-changin’. That was fine with the young woman from Columbus, Ga., who was always singing along to Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and Dylan.

“Something just felt right to me. [The lyrics] just resonated,” she says.

Changes, large and small, were taking place at Sweet Briar, too. Between Morse’s freshman and senior years, the requirement that “ALL blue-jean type pants must be COMPLETELY covered by a coat” disappeared from the handbook, and 3.2-percent beer was about to be allowed on campus. Students also welcomed the biggest change of all: desegregation of the College.

“Ours was the first class to break the will. It was a big deal,” Morse says, referring to the admission of her classmate Marshalyn “Penny” Yeargin in 1966, Sweet Briar’s first African-American student.

The action meant legally reinterpreting Indiana Fletcher Williams’ will. Despite the protracted and bitter court fight, Morse recalls that Yeargin simply arrived as a transfer student and settled in with little ado. She appreciated the lack of drama.

“I was always uncomfortable with segregation in the South and [Sweet Briar] was a good place for me to work through that,” she says.

Frances Morse and her Art of Yoga mentee at the San Francisco Bay-area premiere of “Yogawoman.” Her mentee appears in the documentary film.

She’d formed opinions contrary to those she heard around the dinner table and discovered at Sweet Briar an environment where she could “test” her theories. She wasn’t an activist then.

“Don’t think I was quite ready for that,” she says, adding that when segregation came up at home, “I pretty much remained silent.”

Staying silent would change, but first she had some living to do.

Morse kick-started a distinguished career at Sweet Briar, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and named the Emilie Watts McVea Scholar. She served as SGA president, played tennis and delighted in listing her tap club affiliation on her first resume.

“I was an Ass!” she says, noting that Aints ’n’ Asses was invariably a conversation starter.

She majored in math and beelined north after graduating magna cum laude. She and three roommates took an apartment in Cambridge, Mass., where she had a job as a programmer at MIT “when computers were as big as houses.” She remembers writing a $25 check to Sweet Briar that year.

Philanthropy was one lesson from home that stuck.

“First of all, it feels good,” she says of giving. “It was ingrained from dinner table conversations. If [Dad] had a connection to [an organization] and it had a mission he believed in strongly, he gave to it. And he believed you supported the school that supported you.”

Morse belongs to Sweet Briar’s Silver Rose Society for 25 years of giving. She says, half joking, that she likes being an annual Boxwood Circle donor because the tier is named for those impressive bushes. This year, to help the College reach its fundraising goals and support her Reunion class, she stepped her donation up to the Fountain Society.

Morse lived in the Boston area with her husband, John, a Vermonter, for more than 40 years. In the early 1980s, around the time the Apple II was taking off in secondary schools, she gave up writing code and became certified to teach. Seeing the potential of technology in education, she worked as a computer specialist in Brookline, Mass., for many years teaching seventh- and eighth-graders and developing curricula.

In the 1990s, Morse earned a master’s and doctorate in education at Harvard. She completed her dissertation on the gender gap in computer education and presented on the subject, having spent her teaching career making sure the girls in her classes appreciated what technology could offer them.

After teaching in several local college and university education programs, she left academia behind, but continued helping others use technology. As the director of computer education at Brookline Senior Center, she found her most enthusiastic and appreciative audience yet, Morse says.

Frances and John Morse with their grandchildren at the education center at Edgewood Park.

About 11 years ago, she and John moved to Redwood City, Calif., to be near their daughter. In 1993, as a student at Stanford, Tyler revealed to her parents that she is gay.

“We really struggled with the issue at first,” Morse recalls. “I discovered I wasn’t quite as liberal as I thought, but found PFLAG for support and education. I kind of turned into an accidental GLBT activist!”

Morse thinks of her activism as simply working for the underdog. It doesn’t begin or end with GLBT, or gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues. She and John are active in the support group she spoke of, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, both in California and the Greater Boston PFLAG. In the 1970s, she backed the women’s movement, too.

“I grew up with three brothers and always realized — and resented — that they got to do so much more than I,” she says. “I made sure my daughter got a chance to do any activity she wanted.”

Morse worked briefly for the nonprofit Benetech after moving to Redwood City, but soon became a volunteer for The Art of Yoga Project. An intervention program for incarcerated teen girls in San Mateo County, it was just getting started in the early 2000s and needed a research director to seek grants, collect data and evaluate its effectiveness — all skills Morse acquired at Harvard.

Through yoga and creative art classes, the program teaches accountability, self-esteem, and tools to change behavior. Morse eventually assisted with yoga classes and developed a mentoring component, spending a year each with two mentees of her own.

“Most of the [girls] have multiple traumas in their lives,” Morse says. “[But] every one of them has a wonderful woman inside waiting to get out.”

Today, paid staff run The Art of Yoga Project and Morse and her husband focus on the Edgewood Park and Natural Preserve and its education center, which they worked and supported financially to build. She is a docent, educator, “resident skit writer” (all that Aints ’n’ Asses training, she says) and bluebird monitor. One of the preserve’s great advantages is providing activities they can share with their grandchildren.

Tyler and her partner married during the brief time it was legal in California and have two children, ages 9 and 6, and the Morses often spend time with them.

“We appreciate being able to enjoy them at a slower pace than when we were raising our daughter. We really love just stepping back and watching them grow and develop.”

When Morse reflects on her own story, she can a see a transformation from quiet observer to active participant. Her time in college was part of that change, she says. “Sweet Briar was a growth experience and one that I think shaped my character a lot.”

It’s another reason she gives back.

Jennifer McManamay

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Category: Alumnae and Development