‘It’s going to be hard to see her go’: Morris leaves legacy of personal care at Bethamy Retirement Center
Published 12:02 am Sunday, April 10, 2022
SPENCER — Susan Morris can hardly take a step down the homey hallways of Bethamy Retirement Center without someone calling out to her or reaching in for a hug.
Many residents and staff members at the assisted living facility forgo her given name and simply call her “momma.” She earned that title by providing personalized care to hundreds of older adults while serving as administrator of the 909 Salisbury Ave. retirement center for the past 47 years.
When Morris is finally able to make it a few feet without being stopped, she halts her own progress to straighten a picture frame that was ever so slightly off-kilter.
“Who is going to do that when I’m gone?” She says quietly to no one in particular.
After almost five decades of leading the Bethamy Retirement Center, Morris is retiring herself. Her last day will be on Friday.
“I’m going to miss my clients more than anything in the world because we have such fun there,” Morris said in a recent interview with the Post. “And I’m going to worry about them. But it’s time for me to step away.”
Morris, a Spencer native, was in college when her parents decided to purchase the retirement home from its previous owner, a family friend who couldn’t manage it anymore after being diagnosed with cancer. The center was just two doors down from Morris’ family’s brick house.
Morris had been studying accounting, but shifted her focus to disciplines that would prepare her to help out at the retirement center after graduation.
“My mom and I talked it over and I switched all my classes over to gerontology, pharmacology,” Morris said.
She believes she was one of the first women in North Carolina to be licensed as an emergency medical technician, a feat she accomplished around 1975.
The training and classes were certainly helpful, but Morris had been caring for others since she was a young girl. After having a stroke as a teenager, Morris’ mother, Betty Lane, had lost the use of her right hand and was partially paralyzed on her right side. Morris helped her mother — whose condition likely went unnoticed by many — by doing therapy on her arm and completing other household tasks like hanging clothes.
“I can remember doing therapy on my mom’s arm when I was maybe 8 or 10 years old to keep it loose and limber,” Morris said. “I’d help her do personal things like put earrings in and necklaces on and I did her hair.”
Morris brought that same passion for helping people when she started at the retirement center on Nov. 1, 1974 at the age of 25. Morris was brought on as the center’s administrator, but started out in the kitchen washing dishes.
“I didn’t want to come in there and tell those ladies what they needed to be doing when they were the ones with the expertise,” Morris said. “They took me under their wing and they trained me.”
No task has been too small for Morris during her career.
“Back in the day, I mean, I did it all. The bookkeeping, the paying of the bills, ordering of the medicine,” Morris said. “When my clients would go to the hospital if they got sick at night, they would call me and I’d either meet them at the hospital or go with them.”
A proud graduate of Salisbury Beauty College, Morris has done plenty of hair at the center’s detached beauty salon. She’s also been happy to drive residents to their preferred stylists.
Keeping residents looking good is just one way Morris has made them feel valued.
“Even though they’re in an assisted living center, they’re still the person they were and that needs to be respected,” Morris said. “They’ve all lived lives and been us and they just need a little help right now.”
Morris purchased an old trolley from the city of Winston-Salem to take residents out for lunch or on shopping excursions. She’s also organized trips to the beach and to the mountains.
“It’s always been more personal for me,” Morris said.
Many of the residents, especially those who have lived at Bethamy Retirement Center for several years, have become like family to Morris. They’ve also been like family to Morris’ children. Beth Nance, her oldest daughter, remembers visiting the retirement home with her sister, Amy, almost daily.
“It was like having 27 extra grandparents,” Nance said. “Amy and I would come down to the facility and everybody would always dote on us.”
Morris renamed the center to Bethamy after her two daughters around 1979.
The center’s staff has been like a second family for Morris, too. She’d had many employees stick around for decades.
“I have employees that work for me that are third generation,” Morris said. “I worked with their mom, I work with them and I work with their children.”
Sissy Lambert, a chef at Bathamy Retirement Center, has worked for Morris for 36 years. Many of Lambert’s relatives have worked or are working at the center now.
“Susan has been here with us for a long time,” Lambert said. “She stepped up and was a mom to us when we lost our mom and it’s going to be hard to see her go.”
The loyalty of the center’s employees truly shined when COVID-19 emerged as a serious threat in the spring of 2020. Morris remembers those uncertain days as being some of the most challenging during her nearly five decades long career in the business.
“The worst thing about the pandemic was the isolation for everybody,” Morris said. “That was terrible.”
When they were worried about exposing residents to the virus, Morris said her staff members volunteered to quarantine themselves.
“When it was at the highest in Rowan County, our staff volunteered to quarantine themselves day and night,” Morris said. “And they stayed there for 14 days and nobody went in or went out.”
Morris said she’s glad the center has been able to mostly return to business as usual.
Morris has always been involved in community organizations and that won’t stop when she steps back from the center. For the past 20 years, she’s been secretary of the North Carolina Senior Assisted Living Association and was a member of the group before then.
In addition to her involvement with the local Republican party, Morris ran for a seat in the North Carolina state legislature in the 2000s. She’s also proud of the role she played in planning the 100th birthday party for Mary Hanford, mother to Elizabeth Dole, who was a civic leader in Salisbury. Morris is still involved in the Republican Women’s Club and Spencer Women’s Club.
Morris, an avid and decorated golfer, will continue to play at local courses and compete in tournaments. She also has plans to travel more with friends. She’s slated to be president of the Salisbury Lions Club — an organization she’s been a member of since 1999 and led once before.
“I’ve done everything or been involved in everything,” Morris said. “If I haven’t, they’re probably looking for me to help.”
She’s always been a good helper.