Prominent jeweler Al Morris dies at 90
WILMINGTON – Albert “Al” Morris, the founder of the successful and prominent A.R. Morris Jewelers, died Dec. 3 at age 90.
Founding his namesake jewelry store in 1960, Morris and subsequently his three children have grown A.R. Morris Jewelers into a well-known Wilmington-area brand from locations in Wilmington and Greenville. The affable entrepreneur also became a vocal proponent for small business owners around the state, with the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce naming its member of the year award after him.
His son, Bret Morris, recalled his father as a “lover of people,” who was a great storyteller but also a friend to many in the community.
“When you were with him, he was all present in the conversation because he truly loved it,” Bret said.
A Wilkes-Barre, Pa., native, Morris lost his father when he was just 17 years old. He left college after a year and went to work as a porter at his uncle’s jewelry store – back then jewelers also commonly sold luggage, dining sets and more. He slowly learned the trade and when his uncle offered him the job of managing a store in Wilmington, he took it despite having never left his hometown before.
Here, he took over the Market Street shop that still exists to this day, marrying his wife of 61 years, Felice, and having three children – all of whom became fixtures in the family store.
“We spent our lives downtown … Market Street was a magical place,” Bret Morris said, recalling milkshakes at Govatos’ Chocolates soda fountain as a reward as a young boy.
Longtime friend, client, colleague and former City Councilman Fred Sears II recalled that Morris was someone who leaders trusted, could count on for help and who they often consulted as a voice of small business owners. He credited Morris with staying on Market Street after so many others have left and rallying support for the revitalization of downtown Wilmington that is now well underway.
“He made his commitment to the city; he believed in it and he really got others to follow. People liked to follow Al because he was such a personable guy,” Sears said. “He was such a special person for Wilmington.”
That success in business – and a well-liked personality to help in the lobbying – led Morris to be named the 2004 U.S. Small Business Administration’s Small Businessman of the Year. He would serve for years in the leadership of the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce, earning the inaugural Marvin S. Gilman Bowl in 2008, and be involved in revitalization efforts in Wilmington.
Leonard Simon, the second-generation owner of Wright & Simon, said Morris was part of a “special generation.” His Market Street haberdashery was co-founded by his late father, Morris Simon, a good friend of Al Morris, and the families spent generations together.
“It was a generation in which the family businesses were vital to the economy, especially in downtown Wilmington,” Simon said. “Men like Al instilled a work ethic in you and a professionalism that you wanted to maintain.”
Norman Pernick, the local managing member for Cole Schotz law firm and a lifelong Wilmingtonian who has worked in the city’s revitalization efforts, recalled that work ethic and trust. Seeking to propose to his girlfriend while away at college in Washington, D.C., he phoned Morris in Wilmington for advice on how to secretly get an engagement ring made.
Morris quickly made a plan, entrusting 10 different diamonds to Pernick’s parents to bring down on a visit and working out the ring design over the phone.
“I think I was prepared to spend just about every penny that I had on the ring, and I asked Al if he needed a credit card for a deposit. He said, ‘Stop insulting me; the next time you’re in you can come and pay,’” Pernick recalled.
Over the years, Pernick would chair the Downtown Visions and revitalization plans for Market Street, efforts where Morris was always among the first to help. He said that A.R. Morris remaining on Market Street through the ups-and-downs of the corridor, and even after the family found success with a Greenville location, was an important sign to the city.
“Having those anchors to the city’s history, who have been here and decided to stick with it when they didn’t have to, was crucial,” he said.
For Bret Morris, the longevity of the business continues to be a matter of family pride.
“When my father opened up, there were at least a dozen jewelers on the street and many that were second and third-generation stores. And he was told, ‘You’ll never make it. You’re too small with no money.’ Yet 60 some years later, we’re the only one still here,” he said.