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Once is Enough

Erin, left, and Meghan.


Morse family photo

Brazil, 1980: Mick and Jane were seen as the perfect couple, here with daughters Erin, left, and Meghan.


By ROY PETER CLARK
Special To The Times

Most people who knew Mick Morse presumed he contracted the AIDS virus in Brazil. His wife, Jane, was sure of it. An early rumor spread among his Brazilian friends that Mick had been infected from a blood transfusion.

Mick and Jane lived in Rio from 1975 to 1989, with a two-year hiatus in Germany. Even now, people in Rio remember them as a wonderful couple who made friends easily, were kind to others, and contributed much to the prestigious Escola Americana, the American School.

To get to the school, you drive up a winding road that climbs a hillside covered with tall palm trees. The walls near the road are defaced by graffiti. Security officers are highly visible. Fear of crime is rampant in Rio, so schoolchildren are not allowed to walk up the hill. They must take the bus.

In Rio, rich and poor live close together. No wonder, then, that next to the affluent American School is a favela, or slum, where the Brazilian underclass, including many orphaned children, lives in abject poverty. Visitors are discouraged from entering the favelas, which from a distance look like picturesque hillside villages.

What must be the view of The American School from the nearby favela? An old photo captured from the hilltop above the favela shows six handsome buildings, each with a red-tiled roof in the shape of a hexagon. Each building rises up to a different height. They are all clustered around well-manicured baseball and soccer fields, the cultural union of America and Brazil.

To enter the school, you walk through a metal gate and past a guard house. Inside, you see that the school is built on terraces against the hillside, several levels connected by a series of steps and walkways. These levels correspond to grade levels. The kindergarten kids frolic near the bottom of the hill. The high school kids get to climb to the top. From there they can see gorgeous green hillsides surrounding them on three sides and, beyond the playing fields, a vista that stretches out to the sea.

Mick Morse is remembered here as a teacher, counselor, middle school principal, high school principal and acting-headmaster. Outside what used to be his office hangs a container of sugar water, where tiny hummingbirds come to feed.

In a nearby lunchroom, his old friends - teachers and secretaries - mourn his loss. They tell stories about his patience, kindness, friendliness and concern for students. They say he was formal, but pragmatic. "One mother came into his office crying," recalls school guidance counselor Penny Melo e Souza. "He had no tissues so he plunked down a roll of toilet paper for her."

Students admired him. They say he always searched for a solution that respected the individual. Inez Correa came to his office one day, upset that she could not pass the school's physical education course, which required long-distance running. Mick developed a plan for her. She could pass the course by coming at 6:30 in the morning, running a little more each day until she made the distance.

Christiaan Oyens, now one of Rio's most talented young musicians, was an eighth-grader at Mick's school in 1978. "I remember going to his office. I was cursing, and he said, 'What's the matter?' I said, 'Some motherf - - - - - pissed in my locker, all over my stuff - my books, my notes, my clothes.' I was really cursing. Every word you could think of. But Mick was relaxed and totally cool."

Mick said, "Knowing you, Chris, you probably did it so you wouldn't have to study."

"I was so humiliated and angry, I told him he should make all the students take a urine test. Well, Mick solved all the problems. He made sure the locker was cleaned. He got me new books. He even had the class notes recopied. Just totally cool."

Lydia Correa has special memories of Mick. She and her family are Portuguese and lived in Angola, Africa, during the long civil war there. They escaped to Rio but had to leave all their belongings behind. They had nothing. To get her children into the American School, Lydia volunteered to work there.

When Mick learned of the family's predicament, he hired Lydia as a typist.

"Of course there was a place for me," says Lydia, "because Mr. Morse knew my situation and knew I needed money and wanted an education for my children." As she tells this story, she wears pink tights under a long pink shirt that says: Life is Fragile, Handle with Prayer.

Lydia loved Mick and Jane, and imagined them as the perfect couple. To her Mick was the model boss, educator and family man. He was polite, soft-spoken, and would rush to your rescue in an emergency. Jane was the loving wife, volunteering to work with little children and bringing into the school her world-famous cakes and banana bread.

Lydia has a theory about how Mick got AIDS. He could not have used drugs. He could not have been a homosexual. That was unthinkable. But he slipped. Just once.

"Knowing his morals and principles, he must have been out with a group of men. They said, 'If you are not going with us, you are not a man.' It happens." It is not clear if she imagines Mick having sex with a man or a woman.

Lydia uses Mick's story as an object lesson for her husband and son: "Mick was an example, a teacher, an instructor," she tells them. Imagine the shame he must have felt. Imagine such a wonderful man thinking that he was a fracasso, a failure.

"It could happen to you," she says with passionate resolve. "Even one time is dangerous. It could happen to you."

THE SERIES: This is the eighth installment of a 29-part story.
Next: Chapter 9, The Samba School


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