Thirty Years Ago: Remembering Susan Morris

Susan shows off her new sweater on Christmas morning. She would be murdered in it less than three weeks later.

Ja’Qaylin Harrison, Editor

Editor’s Note:

Today marks 30 years since UWF student Susan Morris was killed on the university’s campus back in 1993. Since then, her family has maintained their goal of keeping her memory alive, not simply as a victim, but as a human being with a life worth remembering. Every five years, Morris’ father reaches out to the Voyager in an effort to ensure that everyone, especially new students, knows who Susan Morris was. This year, Susan’s sister, Wendy, is honoring her. Wendy’s piece, titled “Thirty Years Ago,” follows below.

There’s a memorial bench and sign on the UWF campus in memory of Susan Morris. They were gifts from the fraternity who had selected Susan as one of their little sisters. Nearby, there’s a stone artwork by Susan’s sorority. You may have seen these and associated the name with the “Just Two It” program or “Take Back the Night.” On the other hand, you may have had no idea who Susan Morris was. “Wow,” you probably thought. “1993. That was a long time ago.” It was…. and it wasn’t. It was a different world then, but she was a girl who had a boyfriend, loved her pets, had friends at her job, wanted to wear her new Christmas sweater, and enjoyed being a student at UWF. She wasn’t much different than you are.

Thirty years ago, in 1993, Whitney Houston was at the top of the charts (and the movie theaters), singing “I Will Always Love You” and starring in The Bodyguard. Most of the college girls had perms. A lot of the college guys had mullets. Bill Clinton was president and Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were on top. Hardly anyone had a cell phone, and the world wide web wasn’t public yet.

Thirty years ago, in 1993, Susan, my sister, was twenty-one years old and still lived at home with my parents. I’d driven down from Tennessee for Christmas, pulling in on Christmas Eve just a few hours before our church service started. The rest of the family went on to church, and after freshening up I rode with Susan in her new, to her, red Toyota Celica (bought with her own money earned by working at Video Vendor, which was a local version of Blockbuster). It was a straight shift, and she loved driving it. She promised me that she’d teach me to drive a straight shift the next time I came home.

I am fifty-four years old and have never learned to drive a straight shift.

Two days later I had to return to Tennessee, and I remember sticking my head in her room before I left to tell her good-bye. She barely lifted her head from the pillow, and she mumbled something. (“See ya”? “Be careful”?) I don’t think I told her I loved her. I wish I had. I really wish I had…

The second semester at UWF that year started for Susan on Tuesday, January 5th. She had quit Video Vendor to start a new job on campus. Susan was excited to have finally decided on a career and major: TV production. Like any woman, Susan was eager to wear her new Christmas clothes for a great first impression. On Monday the 11th, she wore a sweater she’d received for Christmas. She had classes all day and moved that red Celica later in the day to a parking lot closer to her first evening class of the semester (ironically, it was Abnormal Psychology). When the class ended between 8 and 8:30 that evening, she walked out towards the parking lot with some other students. One young man offered to escort her to her car in the dark fog. She politely told him she’d be fine.

She wouldn’t be fine ever again. She never returned home that night.

Tuesday morning, January 12, Susan’s car had disappeared from campus. I got a phone call from my dad that my sister had “vanished.” Wednesday evening, January 13, a beaten, raped, and strangled female body was found in a shallow grave by the nature trail on campus. I got another call from my father saying it looked like it might be my sister, and that I’d better come home. Thursday, January 14, 1993, her identity was confirmed by dental records.

On Saturday, January 16, 1993, instead of learning to drive a straight shift, and instead of celebrating my grandmother’s 82nd birthday (which it was) I sat numbly in a church pew with my family staring at my sister’s senior picture and attending her memorial service. A week later, I sat with my family in a packed field house on campus for another memorial service as the Argonaut family grieved with us. The newspapers that week screamed headlines about the “SLAIN STUDENT!!”

A parole violator (he’d served time for sexual assault) from Indiana who was about Susan’s age needed to change cars and had spent several days on the UWF campus – just blending in. He had carjacked the Celica and killed Susan for it. He was arrested within the week and stood trial and was convicted a year later in 1994. He spent a total of twenty-five years in prison (twenty-four on death row after his conviction and sentencing) and was executed in 2018 by lethal injection as I sat in the front row and watched. He didn’t know Susan; she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Somehow, it doesn’t help to know it wasn’t “personal.” I still am left without a sister.

I could write pages on what I’ve learned about the legal system, but here is what I really want to say, because now I am the mother of two daughters myself:

  • Don’t go anywhere alone.
  • Use the buddy system. There really is safety in numbers.
  • Gen Z (and the rest of you) – Look up from your phone!! In ‘93, there were pay phones, but very few cell phones. UWF was in the process of starting a blue light safety system in the parking lot. A lot of press was given to that after Susan’s murder, as if she might have had time to run for the nearest light pole to push a button and ask for help. She probably wouldn’t have. If she’d had a cell phone in her hand, instead of having instant access to 911, she would still have been caught off guard because she wouldn’t have known what was coming. Ladies (gentlemen too), be careful.
  • AGAIN, BE CAREFUL!! Make safe choices. The offender who killed my sister had spent the weekend hooking up with a female UWF student, who let him stay in her dorm room the night of Susan’s murder. Of course, she had no idea what he had done. She later was subpoenaed to testify at the murder trial to help establish a timeline of the evening’s events. (I’ve always wondered how that conversation with her mother went.)
  • As a mom, when my daughters started looking at prospective colleges, one of my top priorities was campus safety. I learned quickly, though, that averages and statistics meant nothing to me. It had taken just one tragedy for me to realize that I will never really feel my family is safe, because my family had become a statistic itself. News stories like that happened to other people – not to us… except it had happened to us. Evil is everywhere, now more than ever.
  • Don’t assume that your parents are controlling you when they want to know your whereabouts or ask you to keep them informed of your plans. When I gave my older daughter a curfew as a teen, she complained that I didn’t trust her. “I don’t trust the WORLD,” I would say. “I don’t assume you’re partying or doing something you shouldn’t be doing. I immediately fear you’re dead somewhere or in the trunk or a car if you’re late.” Parents worry. They worry because they love you. Let them know you made it home safely. Let them know, too, that you love them. If I’d known the morning I left that I’d never see or talk to Susan again, there is so much more I would have said!
  • LOVE and be kind. There’s so much evil, but in those dark days there was also so much love from friends and even strangers all over who prayed for us, sent cards, and helped in so many ways.

Every five years, my father has written about Susan for The Voyager, which generously grants us space to tell a new crop of Argonauts about Susan so that her memory is not forgotten. My parents are aging, and this year it was my turn. Mostly, we just want you to know that Susan is not just a statistic, not just a news story, and not just the name on a scholarship originated by the student body and awarded to students in the Communication Arts. She had the most infectious laugh, she loved movies and going to the beach, and she was a great daughter, sister, and friend. We miss her.

Use the bench. Remember to be careful. Look up from your phone. Recognize that there is evil, but above all….love.