JA Business Hall of Fame: PHIL MORSE
From his personal relationships to his business endeavors, Phil always strove to do the right thing.
Phil married his high school sweetheart, Lona, in 1961, received his master’s degree in international relations in 1964, and in the summer of 1965, joined the Peace Corps—because it was the right thing to do. They spent the next two years overseas.
After that brief international experience, Phil realized Kansas was home. He took a job as a field clerk in Leavenworth before eventually opening his own business, Phil Morse Homes, in 1975. Following in the steps of his father and his grandfather, Phil spent the next 10 years building both custom and spec houses in Topeka.
A decline in the economy, accompanied by high-interest rates, spurred Phil to transition from building homes into real estate. At the time, it just seemed like the right thing to do.
“While it was a bit of a learning curve for him, it was just a different kind of work,” Phil’s son, Mike, said.
“That was really no problem because Dad knew how to outwork everybody.” That work ethic served him well, and his company continued to grow. Phil worked in residential and commercial real estate in Topeka for decades, ultimately founding KS Commercial Real Estate Services Inc. in 1996 with Ken Schmanke.
RESPECT When Mike was a super senior in college and still didn’t have a plan for his career because he had switched his major more than once, Phil asked to meet him for a beer to discuss his future.
“I expected to be shoved out of the nest,” Mike said. “Instead he offered me a job.”
Mike said their relationship changed when he started working for his dad.
“I didn’t know my dad was funny,” Mike said. “For the first time, I got to see him fresh in the morning, rather than when he was tired after working all day.”
Sometimes a father and son working together can be a little dicey. But not for Phil and Mike. Their relationship was built on mutual respect and the understanding that each one of them had a job to do.
“We sat 10 feet from each other for 10 years with no wall between us,” Mike said. “It was a joy working with my dad.”
Phil had a number of hobbies over the years, but whatever the interest at the time, he gave it everything he had.
“When dad was into something,” Mike said, “he was all in, no matter what.”
The longest running hobby was sailing. From 1969 to 1984, every Sunday from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the family would go sailing.
“We did it with zest,” Lona said with a smile.
Ever the competitor, Phil would race the other boats on the lake, hoping to bring home those trophies. “On those days when the wind wouldn’t blow, this wife, who wasn’t a smoker, would light a cigarette so he could find the way the wind was blowing,” Lona said.
Other interests included snow skiing and gardening.
“You should have seen dad’s flowers,” Mike said. “His yard was phenomenal.”
Phil also loved to read. He would devour books like a starving man, filling up cases, shelves and boxes with books on everything from the economy to history. He took that love of knowledge and put it to use by serving on the city and county planning commission for more than 17 years.
INVOLVEMENT Being the father of a special needs child, Phil had a special place in his heart for TARC and committed time, money and love to that organization. He also strongly believed in downtown and served on the Downtown Topeka, Inc. board for years. Mike replaced him when he could no longer serve.
“There has been a Morse on that board for a very long time,” Mike said. “Dad always told me, you couldn’t sit on the sidelines and expect to make a living in a town and not give back. It’s the right thing to do.”
Phil retired in 2006 when he became symptomatic with corticobasal degeneration, a rare disease that eventually robbed him of the ability to walk and speak. In 2011, after a visit to the Mayo Clinic to see the one doctor in the U.S. who specialized in this disease, Phil made the decision to donate his brain to research. After all, it was the right thing to do.
Phil passed away in 2016 after fighting this debilitating disease for a decade, but his legacy lives on.