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Bill Morris: a larger-than-life fixture of the community

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Bill Morris

It was hard not to notice Bill Morris. Between his sheer physical size, the boots he’d wear with a tuxedo, the never-present tie and the huge, expensive cigars he puffed most of his life, the man stood out in a crowd.

For the people who knew him, however, those quirks were just the tip of the iceberg. What stood out for them was the relentless and innovative trial lawyer, the mentor and the proud Jew who was always ready to help the community.

“Bill had some interesting idiosyncrasies that defined his image,” recalled his former law partner, Milton Lewis. “He was a remarkable character. There was never a good cause he wouldn’t support.”

Morris died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 85 on April 24 in Hamilton, Ont.

Lewis and Morris practiced together for 20 years, from 1963 to 1983, before they said a friendly goodbye, in order to follow different paths. Morris’ choice was the field of personal injury law.

“Bill cared about people who had to face insurance companies that had infinitely deep pockets and all the resources,” Lewis said. “He was a pioneer in marshalling resources, to ensure they weren’t completely outmatched.”

Those resources included a law practice with a nurse and a physiotherapist on staff, to provide the health and medical details needed to support claims.

Morris was also one of the first lawyers to integrate paralegals into his practice. That’s how his daughter, Lisa Morris, joined the business. A recent graduate, she was having trouble finding a job in the Toronto legal market, so her father invited her to join his practice for three months.

“Three months turned into 35 years and one paralegal turned into six,” she said. “He really was a pioneer in the personal injury field.”

Lawyer Stan Tick, who faced Morris in court many times, remembered an advocate who was “absolutely fearless” in court, but was always ready to go for a drink and dinner after the gavel fell.

“He fought for his clients relentlessly and never took less than what he thought his case was worth,” Tick said. “He knew how to push the buttons in the right way and move the insurance companies to his way of thinking.”

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Lawyer Dermot Nolan, in a eulogy to be published in the next edition of the Hamilton Law Association Journal, said Morris had a true love for the legal profession.

“Apart from his beloved family and Jewish community, he loved nothing more than the Hamilton bar – and he bestrode it like a colossus,” Nolan wrote. “He was a trailblazer, an innovator and a Champions’ League trial lawyer. If there is a heaven, after the big win that was his life, he is surely there making a vigorous argument for costs.”

While noting that Morris could be “imperious and dismissive, impatient and overbearing,” Nolan said those attributes hid his soft core: “But he was really a big teddy bear – and an absolute marshmallow when it came to his children and grandchildren. He had a heart of gold and was an easy mark for a worthy cause – especially if it involved children, young people, the marginalized or Israel.”

While Morris would never have described himself as religious, he maintained a membership at Temple Anshe Sholom for more than 50 years and gave generously of his time and money to numerous Jewish community causes.

“I knew him from the moment I joined B’nai Brith, because he was on the selection committee that hired me in 1977,” said Frank Diment, the former executive vice-president of the organization. “I think he was a man committed to the whole community, and even though B’nai Brith was his first love, he was involved with the Federation and every Jewish endeavour that I know of in Hamilton.

“Whenever there was a campaign that we undertook, one of the first people to raise his hand was Bill Morris.… He was there in every way, in volunteerism, in financial support and in support of a kind that’s necessary for an organization like B’nai Brith.”

A particular focus for Morris’ charitable efforts was Hamilton’s Beth Tikvah home for developmentally delayed adults.

“He was always very supportive of Beth Tikvah,” Tick recalled. “He was a great fundraiser for Beth Tikvah. He got his friends to support it, all our friends to support it, which was really above and beyond what you would expect.”

Rabbi Jordan Cohen recalled him as “a man who deserves all the respect that has been shown to him. He was always this larger-than-life figure, not only in his physical size and posture and some his unique characteristics like his clothing and his refusal to wear a tie.”

Morris served as president of many professional and community organizations, including the Hamilton Law Association, Hamilton Medical-Legal Society, Hamilton Jewish Federation, the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada and B’nai Brith Canada, as well as vice-president of B’nai B’rith International.

Morris is survived by his wife of 58 years, Eva, children Lisa, Lori, Randy and Jay, as well as four grandchildren and three siblings. He was predeceased by one brother.