Wiedmer: McCallie alum Morris Thuku offers Christmas lesson for us all

Wiedmer: McCallie alum Morris Thuku offers Christmas lesson for us all

December 24th, 2018 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Mark Wiedmer

Mark Wiedmer

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press

Morris Thuku's wife, the mother of his three young children, is named Mercy.

To borrow a line from Psalm 85, when "mercy and truth have met together, righteousness and peace have kissed."

There isn't much peace anywhere this Christmas Eve. There is grandstanding and finger pointing and a general fear that we, all of us, everywhere, are teetering on the edge of a very scary time.

But if you're Morris Thuku, you've experienced both horror and figurative heaven on this big Earth of ours almost from the day you arrived on this planet 43 years ago.

"My wife's name is not a coincidence," said Thuku, a native of Kenya who graduated from McCallie in 1993. "I definitely see it as God's way of smiling upon me with the precious gift of a second chance at life and and having a beautiful family."

No one embodies the gift of a second chance more than Thuku, who once wasted a Brock Scholarship to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, but who now gives a multitude of children in his hometown of Elburgon a first chance at a great education at his Thuku School, which is also known as the Tennessee Institute of Information Technology (tiitkenya.org).

"My school caters to both underserved boys and girls," Thuku explained this past week while in town for an extended vacation with his family. "They're so hungry for an education, and you have to pay to go to high school in Kenya. These kids' parents can't even afford $50 a year. So we scholarship as many as we can."

Thuku went from relatively wealthy, by Kenyan standards, to starkly poor in 1989 when his father died unexpectedly.

"I had gone to a British private school in Kenya," Thuku recalled. "My brother, Andrew, was attending Bryan College in Dayton. We had a good life. Then my father died and my mother was suddenly left to raise 11 kids on a salary of $30."

This meant that Andrew would have to leave Bryan, a private school, and enroll at UTC. It also meant he knew there was no way his mother could raise all those children by herself. So he offered to take Morris off her hands and bring him to the United States.

"But now he had to find a place for me to go to school," Thuku recalled. "He walked into McCallie one day, explained my situation and the rest is history, as they say."

Thuku did well at McCallie. He played soccer and wrestled. He earned the Brock Scholarship to UTC. Then his life took a nasty turn.

"I started partying," he said. "Smoking weed. Growing dreadlocks. I lost my scholarship."

Despite fronting Milele Roots, a popular local reggae band at the time, and starting a lifelong friendship with trumpet player Antoine Williamson, Thuku had lost his way.

"He stopped eating," said Willliamson, who provided shelter for Thuku during this time. "He would leave my home in the middle of the night and go sleep by the railroad tracks. He was experiencing a spiritual crisis."

At the height of that crisis, and now experimenting with LSD, Thuku left the band just as it was about to head to Jamaica to cut a record.

"Morris was such a charismatic singer," Williamson said. "When he left, everything kind of stopped. No one else we tried was up to snuff."

It is here that Thuku's mother Priscilla intervened. Though struggling herself with all those children, she loaned him money to start the school, partly because he believed he could make a profit with it. However, after four years of giving away far more scholarships than he was raising money to cover, the school was almost ready to close.

Then Chet LeSourd arrived one day from McCallie. The faculty head for Keo-Kio, the school's senior leadership organization, he offered to give Thuku and his school from $6,000 to $8,000 a year.

"We're going on 10 years now," Thuku said.

Said LeSourd: "It's just so heartwarming to see what Morris has done, what an impact he's made in his hometown with these kids. So many of them have nothing. They run around barefoot. But the Thuku School is giving them this wonderful chance to succeed."

It has all been working wonderfully, but Thuku wanted something more for his students. He wanted to start a baseball program for all these young boys who had never played the sport. He went to a clinic to learn the basics. With help from McCallie, balls, bats and gloves soon arrived. He has taught his students so well that four of them are now on the Kenya Baseball Federation team with an outside chance of qualifying for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Yet for all that success, Thuku's kids have no field to play on.

"Just a lot of dirt covered in pebbles," he said this past week. "We need a real field or fields, and that could take as much as $50,000 to acquire that type of land."

If this story sounds vaguely familiar, it's because Howard's high school baseball program was in roughly the same spot a couple of years ago. No playable field and scant equipment.

Then Jon Johnson arrived to coach the Hustlin' Tigers. He and the players worked each weekend to properly prepare a field for play. When word got out about what Johnson was doing, donations began to pour in — more than enough to accomplish all the coach had wanted.

"Yes, I'm trying to learn from him," Thuku said. "I also hope to start a softball program for my girls."

Thuku's dreams have even stirred his old friend Williamson to begin a local program to provide musical instruments for needy children interested in music, especially jazz.

"I'm calling it Doors Open Jazz — DOJ," Williamson said. "Morris inspired me to do this. I look up to him, basically, and he's younger than me."

Both Williamson's plan to provide instruments and Thuku's desire to build a baseball field in Kenya are in their infant stages. Anyone interested in helping can donate money through the Tennessee Valley Credit Union using the account number 000307026104 for Doors Open Jazz Inc.

Come Jan. 11, Morris, Mercy and their children will return home to Kenya, hopeful the Scenic City's generosity, especially from McCallie, will allow them to continue to expand their school and its offerings.

But with Christmas morning almost at our door, Thuku was asked what gift he most hoped to receive.

"Just to be able to offer far more scholarships to all needy and deserving kids and be their launching pad out of poverty and despair," he said.

There could be no better way to help righteousness and peace kiss.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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