Whether going beyond the call of duty by assisting a law client with a life-altering injury, patronizing the arts, performing on stage or simply stopping to aid a motorist in distress, Stanley I. Morstein was always there to help, support and inspire people, his family said.
Morstein died peacefully at his Lutherville home on Monday, Aug. 7. He was 87.
Born July 2, 1930 in Baltimore, Morstein grew up two blocks from Druid Hill Park in Northwest Baltimore and attended Shaarei Tfiloh Synagogue. He went to PS 49, an accelerated junior high school, and later high school at nearby Baltimore City College, where as a varsity tennis team member he was a three- time undefeated champion. As a young man, he worked at his father’s business, Morstein’s Jewelers on Light Street.
Daughter Debra Sloss said he wrote in his high school yearbook that his aspiration was “to be a success,” and it seems he achieved that goal on many fronts throughout his life.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Maryland in 1951 and his law degree in 1954 from the university’s School of Law, he was admitted to the bar the same year. Before embarking on his legal career, he served in the Army during the Korean War, during which he taught military justice while stationed in Columbia, S.C. For most of his career Morstein was a general practice attorney until 1990, when he reduced his caseload to devote more time to his other loves: teaching and theater.
“That freed up a lot of time,” Sloss said. “He had always wanted to teach and do more theater.”
He taught middle school drama and current events at Friends School of Baltimore, where he also coached tennis. His love of sports extended throughout his life with tennis, squash, boxing and especially cycling as a Baltimore Bicycling Club member and participant in Cycle Across Maryland and the Senior Olympics. He impressed his love of sports on his children and grandchildren and engaged them in outdoor activities such as camping and canoeing.
But it is perhaps his love of the arts for which he is most remembered as an actor in small theater productions and as a patron of artists and musicians, including his own children. He was an enthusiastic and frequent performer with area play-reading groups, theater companies and venues such as the Gordon Center for Performing Arts, the Jewish Repertory Theater of Baltimore, Spotlighters, the Towne Drama Club and the Vagabond Theatre.
“He loved doing Bradley in ‘The Cocktail Hour,’ he loved playing Otto Frank in ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and Shelley ‘The Machine’ [Levene] in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross,’” wife Susan B. Morstein said.
In October 2003, the Morstein Performa theater at the Gordon Center was dedicated in his name, with the construction of the 100-seat theater sponsored by Morstein and wife Susan. “It was to convert a room into a small, intimate theater,” Susan said, adding that Morstein later performed in the space, especially over the last 15 years. “He did a lot of performances at the Gordon Center and the JCC.”
The two had met at the Towne Drama Club play-reading group in 1977, which Morstein founded in 1956. They married in 1982, a second marriage for both. Susan said she supported his zest for theater throughout their life together.
Morstein discovered his interest in arts and theater through an Army buddy.
“He always talked about how it just opened his world,” Sloss said. “He was in his first few productions when he was in the Army, and [it] introduced him to theater and the arts and music.”
For the last 10 years Morstein was involved in a collaboration with classical piano duo Saar Ahuvia and Stephanie Ho, graduates of the Peabody Institute. Concerts included readings by Morstein and music performed by Ahuvia and Ho.
“The last performance at the Gordon Center was ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’” Susan said. “And there he read parts of the Shakespeare play while they played Mendelssohn’s music to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ that was arranged for two pianists.”
Those performances were about two years ago, after Morstein was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
“But he would always rise to the occasion. Always. No matter what, he could rise,” Susan added. “In a way, his life was like running a marathon. And I can’t think of anything that he really wanted that he didn’t achieve.”
“Stanley had such an incredible energy, passion and zest for life. Here at the J and at the Gordon Center, you could see Stanley come to life in the persona of so many different characters,” said Barak Hermann, JCC chief executive officer. “He loved theater and the arts, and we were so fortunate to have him grace our stage and have our Performa be named in his honor. Stanley was philanthropic and committed to ensuring the arts were an integral part of the JCC programming.”
For family members, Morstein will be remembered for his compassionate, giving nature and lust for life. But most of all, the message from Stanley Morstein was to always watch out for and care for others, whether family, friend, colleague or stranger.
“I remember him stopping on the road whenever he saw somebody pulled over, and this was before people had [cell]phones,” Susan said. “And he would always offer to help.”
“He always treated people with a lot of respect, no matter what their station in life was,” son Benjamin Basch said. “And he said how important it is to be of substance, whether you stand for something, do something, have an impact. And it wasn’t even do the right thing, but do the rightest thing.”
“As his kids, we all feel like we were given that message,” Sloss said. “He never said the word tikkun olam, but he definitely imparted that part of your job as a human being is to improve the world — to make it better for people.”
In addition to Susan, Debra and Benjamin, Morstein is survived by former wife Mildred Golda Nodar; children Susan (Steven) Saul, Ruth Nickens, Jonathan (Kirsten) Basch and Rachael (Ed) Ignatoff; grandchildren Rachel and Kenny Nickens, Rowan, Galen and Jasper Sloss, Philip Ignatoff, Nathan and Adam Basch, Julia and Jacob Basch and Joshua and Heather Saul. Interment is private. A public memorial will be held Saturday, Sept. 9 at noon at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave. in Owings Mills. Contributions in his memory may be sent to Development Office, HopeWell Cancer Support, P.O. Box 755, Brooklandville, MD 21022, hopewellcancer support.org, or the Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Ave., Montgomery, AL 36104, splcenter.org.