Roger Morrison loves stories. For more than eight years, Roger has led a reading group made up of residents at St. John’s Home. He researches books, reads them to decide whether they are a good fit for the group, and then comes by St. John’s once a week to read for an hour or so.
But it’s not what he reads that he loves so much. It’s the stories he hears from the residents about their own lives, their own history, that keeps him coming back.
“I do this because I so love—I’m not trying to be melodramatic—but I so love these folks,” Roger says. “I feel an obligation to, a lot of these people don’t have a long time to go, I just feel that if there’s anything I can do to make their last years or months or whatever enjoyable, I feel compelled to try and do that. This is not a job in any way, shape, or form.”
Roger started volunteering as a reader in November 2008 after his mother-in-law was moved from the Meadows to St. John’s Home. His wife would come up and visit her mother, and often would ask Roger to join them for lunch. Uncomfortable at first, Roger eventually committed to making a visit.
“And that was about what it took,” he says, “because I sat with this group of five ladies and I was fascinated by listening to them talk, especially the one to my right. She talked about her history, and she talked about her father, who was a coal miner in Pennsylvania and an immigrant from Italy. It turned out she was Mrs. Mangione, who was Chuck Mangione’s mother. She was fascinating to talk to and listen about her history.”
From then on, Roger was hooked. He decided to start the reading group with people in comfort care. He started first with autobiographies of Carol Burnette and Lucille Ball. From there, he went to novels and then to short stories.
“We got together with the TR and put together eight or nine people, put them in a little cubbyhole room and started to read,” Roger says. “The people were fascinating.”
Eventually, he started a second reading group in the Reservoir Building that is still going today, and the original group from the South Building has been restarted after a hiatus. Every once in a while, Roger will change it up and throw in some music instead.
“I have a great set of Frank Sinatra DVDs from all of his live concerts from London to California to Madison Square Garden—they are fantastic. So, I interject that every two or three months. It’s amazing that you can see—most of these groups are women—you can see them look at him singing these great songs from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, and you just see these glassy eyes and see them start singing along because they sort of group up with him when he was in his prime.”
Roger spent his professional career in advertising, first in New York City and then for Kodak here in Rochester. Working in the television division, he would travel to Los Angeles to oversee the production of Kodak’s commercials. Now retired, his focus has shifted to giving back through volunteer work.
“This is something, I think—I’m sure if you talk to other volunteers they’ll say the same thing—it’s a way of giving back, not individually to what any of these people have done, but collectively what they’ve been through with their lives and their great stories. I love to hear them talk about themselves. I would tell anybody that you will get infinitely more out of this than you expected, and it’s not because it’s so good for me, it’s good for them.”