“You develop a core that makes you say if there’s a need I’m gonna try and figure out a way to get that taken care of,” said Mary Morrison, when asked how she developed her passion for helping those in need. Morrison, raised in the famously conservative (“regressive,” in her words) First Baptist Church in Fort Worth, is not your typical activist. As a proud grandmother and a registered nurse, she was active in getting the episcopal Church of the Resurrection to be inclusive of same-sex members. She was also a woman who divorced her husband and raised two children as a single mom. Morrison’s devotion to helping people in the gay community at the height of the AIDS epidemic, when gay men were dying at astounding rates, makes her a pioneer.
In Kentucky, where she grew up, Morrison worked as a nurse taking care of poor and working-class people who saw health care as a right. She also volunteered with Frontier Nursing Service, which brought health care to people living in rural communities who had no access to basic medical needs. After she divorced, Morrison’s entire worldview shifted, and she grew as a result of that.
“I’d been divorced and I had two kids and I had no idea about being a single mom and the breadwinner,” said Morrison. Born in Fort Worth, Morrison had a cousin in San Antonio who persuaded her to move there in 1984, when her children, Matthew and Elizabeth, were already finished with high school. Her experience with the San Antonio AIDS Foundation, at that time just a storefront occupied by a few devoted people, was eye-opening. “I didn’t always have the emotional strength to deal with it,” she said.
Many of their patients were extremely ill. A friend of Morrison’s, John, lived with her for a few months while he was recovering. It was a challenging experience because he was dealing with neurological damage as a result of the disease. A 40-something former psychologist, he was used to telling others how to cope with these kinds of things. All these years later, Morrison was emotional about it. “He tried to make peace with his family, and it was very touching and courageous.”
After a few years and attending the funerals of many friends, she decided to walk away from it and left clinical nursing to work as a legal nurse in Dallas. A headhunter got her a job with a law firm in Austin, which is what led her to connect with the Octopus Club. In 2003, when she was working at Germer Gertz Beaman and Brown, Stephen Rice, who has been active with the Octopus Club for many years, met Morrison over lunch.
Rice, who put Morrison in touch with his partner, Mark Erwin, for more information about volunteering with the Octopus Club, was effusive in his praise of Morrison, calling her dedication to social justice and equality amazing. “She became one of the most hard-working volunteers in the history of the organization,” Rice said. “She has put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears for all of us–even the ones she does not know–a very unlikely hero, indeed.”
When she was married, her husband’s job with General Electric required that they relocate every few years. In every city, Morrison took a course or two, eventually getting her bachelor’s degree in literature from St. Mary’s in 1992. She’d already received her associate degree in applied science from the University of Kentucky in 1972.
Although she grew up surrounded by hate speech that targeted African-Americans and others, Morrison instinctively knew that was wrong. “I remember sitting in church one Sunday night and listening and thinking he is just so full of shit,” Morrison she, adding that the pastor was preaching against someone.
Other than her great relationships with her grandsons, now seven and nine years old, she said she’s most proud of all the fun she’s had producing events through the Octopus Club that have a real impact on people living with HIV and AIDS in Central Texas. Since its beginnings in 1989, the organization has raised almost $1.6 million for the Paul Kirby Emergency AIDS Fund.
“Apathy is the biggest challenge. People have been lulled in the mindset that this is just a chronic disease and they into just get medication,” Morrison said. “Life with AIDS is still very hard for some people. But it’s astounding what you can accomplish.”