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1923 Fran 2023

Franziska Kempner Morris

July 13, 1923 — September 4, 2023


Franziska Kempner Morris, age 100.  Fran passed away on September 4, 2023, in the peace of her house and garden.  She was born on July 13, 1923 in Berlin, Germany, to Marga von Mendelssohn Kempner and Paul Kempner.  Fran and her three siblings were classified as Mischlinge, persons of mixed race, by the Nazis.  The family was fortunate to be able to leave for England in October, 1938.  As Fran writes in her memoir, A Life in Words and Music, "we were able to leave Germany on the pretense of a weekend visit to some friends in Brussels.  Much later I heard that the Gestapo had come to the house the day after we left."  They were on the boat to New York on September 1, 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland. 

Fran completed high school at The Dalton School in New York.  She attended Bennington College in Vermont, where she studied piano and dance and graduated in 1945 with a degree in music.  She married Ted (Edward) Morris, then a graduate student in French at Yale, in 1946.  Their children Humphrey and Sylvia were born in 1947 and 1950.  The family lived in Bryn Mawr, Middletown, and Cambridge before they moved to Ithaca in 1961, when Ted came to Cornell, and Fran began teaching piano.  Fran and Ted divorced in 1972.   

After so many displacements, Fran lived over fifty years--the second half of her life--in the sanctuary of her small converted carriage barn on Lodge Way, her baby grand right there in the sunny front room where she greeted her guests.  With understated hospitality she received family, friends, and generations of piano students.  But Fran's guests of honor were the children who came for lessons, and whom she would bring together as a group twice a year for recitals.  They would sit on her carpet by the grand front window and listen to one another play, with parents in the background.  Sitting at the keyboard beside her students, Fran did her life's work with full, soft-spoken presence.

Teaching piano for Fran always meant being a student as well.  When she first came to Ithaca she worked with Malcolm Bilson, and after that, for thirty years, with Trudy Borden.  She wrote in her memoir:  "Trudy has a way of getting to the bottom of a piece with all its details intact, but without ever losing sight of the overall meaning, of its character.  How do we choose a piece to work on?  To me, ultimately, it has to be based on love, to survive the long slow process of getting to know the inherent life of a piece."  In 1973 Fran went to the Dalcroze Institute in Geneva for a year of rigorous study in their method of teaching children music based in rhythmic movement.  After her return, she continued this study in summer workshops of the Dalcroze Society of America.

Alongside music, as in the title of her memoir, Fran gave a place of equal importance to words.  All her life she wrote letters as they were written in the lost world she grew up in--faithfully, regularly, to all her family and friends.  Life was to be reflected, and reflected on, in writing.  She never missed your birthday, and the day after you had had her to dinner, you received a thank you note.  And Fran was a lifelong reader of poetry; it turned her to nature and to our place in it.  In Ithaca she discovered the poet who most spoke to her, Archie Ammons.  She wrote poems of her own in the 1980s and 1990s.  Then in 2001, inspired by her friend Jim McConkey, she took a memoir writing course at Cornell.   Over the next twenty years she crafted, with care, the autobiographical pieces that are gathered in A Life in Words and Music. 

Her Ithaca friends will remember the feeling of Fran's attentive listening on walks in Cornell Botanic Gardens, and over cups of tea at Lodge Way, almost always just the two of you.  They will also remember that in her 90s, as Fran needed more help at home, she found the embrace of a new social group, the "Fran Team" of devoted and talented women who spent hours talking with her about her life, and reading with her everything from poetry to fiction (some of this in German) to her memoir, and playing music, and cooking.  Blending graciously with Fran's friends and family, the Fran Team accompanied her in the deepest sense, relieving her of the feeling that she had to do everything by herself.

Fran outlived her daughter Sylvia, who died of cancer in 2010; she outlived her siblings, although they all lived into their 90s; she outlived many close family members and many close friends.  She is survived by her son Humphrey and his wife Deborah Greenman (Cambridge, MA), her two grandchildren Dylan Morris (New Haven, CT) and Kyra Morris (Lambertville, NJ), their spouses Lizzie Blackmore and Brendan Pelsue, and her twelve nieces and nephews.  Her strength to keep going drew on a spiritual practice that was very private, although in the 1970s she did attend the First Congregational Church in Cayuga Heights, and once gave a sermon.  She expressed her moral commitment in a devotion to friends and family that one received as a rare feeling of being known.   And Fran had a sense too of the big moments in life.  She would never have missed her grandchildrens' weddings, even though, very much against her character, she had to attend remotely.

Fran is buried, as was her wish, in a simple hilltop cemetery in Vermont.  It is very near the family house she loved that Humphrey and Deborah built in 1980.  A memorial service will be held in Ithaca in the spring.

Donations in Fran’s memory will support a tribute tree in Cornell Botanic Gardens and can be made through the Botanic Gardens webpage.




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