Committed to community: John Morgan to retire after 20-plus years with Pasco schools

Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldJune 20, 2014 

— John Morgan grew up in a house on 10th Avenue in Pasco, close to Longfellow Elementary School where he began his education and played countless neighborhood baseball games each summer.

The Pasco School District assistant superintendent, who retires at the end of June, didn’t end up far from his old haunt.

His office in the district’s administration building is only a few blocks from his childhood home, his grade school and its ballfields.

He has spent more than 40 years in education, starting out as a teacher and coach before unintentionally following the path of his father, who also served as an assistant superintendent in Pasco.

“I’ve had the greatest run you could ask for,” the 64-year-old said.

But it was his years spent in the classroom and on the field, guiding hundreds of Mid-Columbia students, that Morgan is most proud of and for which he is most remembered.

“I wanted to be like him,” said Navy Capt. Bob Weissenfels, who played football under Morgan at Hanford High School in the mid-1980s.

Pasco roots run deep

Morgan’s family has deep roots in Pasco. His mother’s relatives were post-Civil War homesteaders in Franklin County. His father, Emerson Morgan, moved to town at age 5 and became a football star, eventually playing for Gonzaga University.

“The kids would go to the railroad station because they knew Emerson was coming home,” Morgan said.

His father spent all but one year of his education career in Pasco. He started as a teacher and coach and worked his way up to district athletic director, then principal of Pasco High School and finally assistant superintendent.

Emerson Morgan was a successful coach, helping Pasco High win a state football championship, and he also coached his sons in baseball. Spending so much time together gave Morgan ample opportunity to learn what meant most to his father.

“Winning was important but what was more important to my father was how you played the game,” he said.

He played on school teams for football, basketball and baseball. He and his brother never shied from organizing neighborhood baseball games, particularly with the Avery family in east Pasco. And he waited for his own opportunity to coach his own team like his father.

“It was a natural fit for him,” said Mike Guajardo, Pasco High’s boys basketball coach and a childhood friend.

Coach and teacher

Morgan went to what is now Eastern Washington University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in education in 1973. His first teaching and coaching jobs were in the Columbia School District in Burbank before he headed to Hanford High School in Richland about 1980.

Weissenfels began playing for Hanford High’s football team in 1983 when Morgan was coach and also ran a weight training program at the school. It didn’t take long for Morgan to leave an impression on him.

“He cared about the students, and you could tell from the way he talked about them,” Weissenfels said.

Morgan’s dedication to playing by the rules and sportsmanship were always evident, Weissenfels said. Hanford was soundly beating Woodinville High School in a game and Morgan was trying to just run out the clock. However, a junior varsity coach called a play that led to Hanford scoring, leading to a tongue-lashing from Morgan.

“We were already up by 40 points,” Weissenfels said, laughing.

And Morgan didn’t forget coaching when he was off the field. Dozens of football players visited his home for dinner Thursdays before games, largely prepared by his wife Sandra Morgan, herself a veteran teacher and coach. Having so many hulking athletes frequently visiting led the family to wear out couches and chairs fairly quickly, Sandra Morgan said.

But she also saw how important Morgan was to his athletes and how much he liked having them in his life. He provided advice that could improve play or help in the classroom and he was always willing to listen.

“He’s a very honorable man,” his wife said.

Called out of retirement

Pasco High Principal Ray Reynolds, one of Morgan’s former teachers and coaches, came calling for him in 1990 to become a history teacher and football coach.

The move reunited Morgan with Guajardo, who was head boys basketball coach at the school before he initially retired in 2001.

“We worked closely together,” Guajardo said.

Six years later, as Reynolds prepared to leave the school himself, he encouraged Morgan to become an administrator. It wasn’t a path Morgan had ever sought, and he knew it would likely be the end of his coaching career.

“It was never a plan, but I believe you don’t shut doors on opportunities,” Morgan said.

He became an assistant principal and, a few years later, principal as his father had been. When Pasco residents approved an $83.4 million bond in 2006 to build what would become Chiawana High School, he became its planning principal.

However, he never occupied an office there, as he wasn’t sure how much longer he would be working for the district as he neared retirement. He’s spent the past seven years in the district office, first as executive director of capital projects and now assistant superintendent.

“He is certainly a revered teacher, coach and administrator, but he is also truly committed to Pasco,” said Superintendent Saundra Hill. “Every decision he has made has been guided by what is best for our community, and specifically what is best for the children of our community. It has been an honor and a privilege to work with a colleague of such deep dedication, integrity and devotion.”

Going into administration did force Morgan to give up coaching. He missed his time with kids, friends and family said, but moving up in the district did a lot of good for others.

“It wasn’t like he was leaving anything. It just meant he could work with more kids indirectly,” Guajardo said.

Legacy lives on

As much as Morgan has missed coaching, he isn’t anticipating getting right back into it. He instead plans to spend more time with his wife, travel and watch his eight grandchildren play sports, he said.

“I haven’t sat in bleachers in years and years, and I’ll have to learn to sit and not move around and look at things,” he said.

But his legacy as an inspiration to his players will live on. Weissenfels is retiring from the Navy this year and plans to return to the Tri-Cities and would like to coach at his old high school as Morgan did.

After Morgan’s father retired from the Pasco School District in 1975, he went on to sit on the Pasco City Council and helped set the way for the growth that has flowed into the city in recent years. Morgan himself said he isn’t planning to seek office but his wife noted that his plans have changed before.

And coaching might not be out of the question, either. Guajardo returned to the hardwood this past winter at Pasco High and will be back for the 2014-15 season.

“I told John, ‘You never know,’ ” Guajardo said.

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