The Wharton School sadly announces the death of Donald (Don) Morrison, emeritus professor of statistics, who passed away peacefully on July 11, 2022. He was 91.
Morrison joined Wharton in 1963 after working in research positions at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, the National Institutes of Health, and Bell Labs. He served as chairman of the statistics department from 1978 to 1985 and as secretary to the faculty after retiring in 1999. Morrison also became a fellow of the American Statistical Association in 1968 and the Institute for Mathematical Statistics in 1975.
Although he took on leadership roles and worked extensively as a consultant, he most relished his time spent in the classroom with students. Teaching inspired him to write two textbooks: Applied Linear Statistical Methods, which was published in 1983, and Multivariate Statistical Methods, which was published in 1967 with a fourth edition in 2004.
“The statistics department was really his life,” said his son, Norman Morrison, 52. “He just lived for that department. Even after he retired, he continued to teach one or two classes. The teaching aspect was really who he was, and he wanted to hold on to that.”
Morrison was known for keeping in touch with his students long after graduation and championing their careers. Cyrus Mohebbi, who now works as head of wealth management strategies and modelers at Morgan Stanley, was a young PhD candidate in the mid-1980s when he was assigned to Morrison. The professor helped him find a scholarship, hired him as a teaching assistant, and gave him a job reference decades later when Mohebbi applied to be an adjunct instructor at New York University.
“He wasn’t like that only to me. He treated everyone like a human being,” said Mohebbi, who started a small fund in Morrison’s name to help Wharton grad students attend statistics conferences. “He invited students for Thanksgiving and Christmas to his house. He was a very nice, very sweet guy with an open-door policy.”
Mohebbi described his former professor as a mentor who became a lifelong friend. Yet the former student never could bring himself to address Morrison by his first name no matter how many times Morrison insisted.
“I remember the last dinner we had. It was snowing and I was helping him to his car. I was calling him Dr. Morrison, and he said, ‘Please call me Don,’ but I just couldn’t,” Mohebbi said. “I enjoyed spending time with him. I respected him so much.”
Morrison’s support extended to his colleagues, including emeritus statistics professor Paul Shaman, who joined Wharton in 1977 and was department chairman from 1990 to 2002. He always felt that Morrison was instrumental in hiring him.
“When I interviewed back in ‘77, I think it was Don pushing for me that got me the job, so I have very strong feelings for him,” Shaman said.
Shaman remembered Morrison as warm, kind, and caring. He could be quiet, but he loved a good joke and would break into raucous laughter while telling a funny story or anecdote.
“He had a gentleness in dealing with people,” Shaman said. “He didn’t have a mean bone in his body. There was never anything that reflected anger.”
Outside of work, Morrison was a devoted husband and father. He was married to Phyllis Morrison for 54 years, and they raised two sons, Norman and Stephen. Donald and Phyllis met in the 1960s when they were living in the same apartment complex in the Philadelphia suburbs. Phyllis wanted to introduce one of her single girlfriends to Don, but she ended up dating him instead.
“She had a lot of confidence, so she marched right up to him and introduced herself and said she had this friend she’d like him to meet,” Norman Morrison said. “The funny thing is that it’s the confidence you have when it isn’t about you.”
He said his mother was in her early 30s at the time and had almost given up on getting married — until she met Don. Coincidentally, Phyllis was outside with her cat, named Kismet, when she approached her future husband.
“They always talked about how they met as kismet,” Norman Morrison said.
His father had a lifelong passion for trains and was an amateur railroad historian with a special interest in signaling systems. During his retirement, he volunteered as a trainman with the Wilmington and Western Railroad. Norman Morrison said his father’s love for trains went back to his childhood.
“Growing up, it was all about the trains,” he recalled. “We never flew on a plane. We took trains across the country. We took trains to Canada. Everything was a train or a car.”
When he was earning his bachelor’s degree in business administration at Boston University, Donald Morrison worked manual labor installing underground cable for the railroad. It was a gritty, dirty job that shaped his worldview and how he treated others. It also contributed to his tenacity. Norman said his father never gave up or quit trying. Donald earned his master’s degree in statistics at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, but he wasn’t accepted to the PhD program there. He dusted off the disappointment and applied to Virginia Tech, graduating with his doctorate in 1960.
Although he was a gifted mathematician, Morrison was equally agile with his creative right brain, always busy with projects and interests. He read everything, had a massive vocabulary, and possessed an eidetic memory.
Norman Morrison said that sharp, unfailing memory is one of the traits he will miss the most about his father, along with his love and patience.
“I don’t think I would have gotten into Penn if he hadn’t been a professor there, so I’m forever grateful for that,” said Norman Morrison, who earned a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Penn.
Donald Morrison is survived by his wife, Phyllis; son Norman and his wife, Gail; son Stephen and his wife, Emiko; three grandchildren, Charlotte, Hazen, and Isobel; and sister Eleanor. Read the family’s online obituary here.
As many in our community grieve, we want to remind everyone that they can reach the Employee Assistance Program 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by calling 1-866-799-2329 or by scheduling an online appointment using the link in Penn Cobalt.