National Humanities Center taps Charlotte’s Patricia Morton as leader

A childhood move to Paris immersed Patricia Morton in a society defined by its culture.

She loved its galleries, museums and music. She learned French and ate seafood and creamy sauces.

The elementary school adventure lasted three years, until her father’s job brought her family back to the United States.

The urge to explore the world stuck, however; Morton spent most of her career in Asia, London and New York, juggling high-powered finance jobs with marriage and motherhood – and always, a passion for art, literature and music.

Now living in Charlotte, Morton is emerging as a leader bringing business-world experience to education and the arts. It’s a far-reaching platform: The National Humanities Center recently elected her chairwoman.

Morton, 59, is the first woman to lead the board since the center opened in 1978. The last North Carolina chairman was former UNC system president William Friday in the 1980s.

Fellow board members, a cast of luminaries from the business, education and arts worlds, say she’s a natural.

Based in Research Triangle Park, the humanities center is a nonprofit hub that offers fellowships for academics to complete research, books and projects. The center also offers training and materials to high school teachers. Center fellows have published more than 1,500 books.

At a time when skeptics question the value of a liberal arts education, Morton says science and technology should be taught in tandem with art, literature, history and philosophy. “It gives us an appreciation for other cultures and perspectives and helps us communicate and interact with others – so important today in our interconnected world,” she said.

Morton said she wants the center to cast a wider net. For example, the center offers lesson plans for teachers that use history and literature to help students understand differing racial, economic and ethnic experiences.

“We are doing society a great disservice if we don’t take this intellectual capital and make it more accessible,” she said.

On the move

Patricia Roderick Morton believes a well-rounded education is crucial to upward mobility, a lesson taught to her by the two most influential people in her childhood.

Her father, David Roderick, was the son of a postal worker. He served as a Marine in World War II, went to college on the GI Bill and eventually became chairman of U.S. Steel.

Morton’s mother, Elizabeth, also from modest beginnings, developed an early love for reading and culture. An amateur artist and pianist, Elizabeth Morton transformed into an accomplished partner of a husband who was a powerhouse in his city and an adviser to presidents.

Morton, the middle of their three children and only daughter, loved her mother’s world. “It got under my skin, this true, visceral, emotional feeling about the arts,” she said.

Morton majored in political science and economics at Duke, got an MBA and landed a job with J.P. Morgan in New York.

Riding the elevator on the first day, she met Thruston Morton III, another trainee.

“She was so even-keeled, so smart and together,” he said. “She seemed much more mature than a 24-year-old.”

They were engaged by the end of their six-month training period, and in a move they say was unprecedented, they transferred together as a married couple to J.P. Morgan’s Singapore office. Their daughter Whitney was born there.

A few years later, they transferred to Hong Kong, where they had another daughter, Catie. The family came to North Carolina in 2000 when “Thrus” Morton became chief executive for Duke University’s endowment. Morton took a job with Franklin Street partners.

The couple moved from Durham to Charlotte in 2009 when Thrus Morton started a private investment firm.

Starting from scratch

Morton retired and now sits on nonprofit boards, including the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, and The Morgan Library and Museum in New York.

“She has a very fine mind,” said friend Sally Robinson, a Charlotte community leader who sits on the humanities center board. “Patty is very bright, hardworking, conscientious and delightful. She is fun to be with.”

And driven: Robinson said Morton co-chaired a recent fundraising campaign that raised more than $19 million for the center – $6 million more than its goal.

Johnson C. Smith University President Ron Carter says Morton brings discipline, thoughtfulness and ambition to the university board. He says she understands the issues facing the historically black college – including deep budget cuts and financially struggling students – and seeks solutions.

Morton recently invited Carter and a group of business leaders to dinner at her home. The plan was to show what the university could offer and how the business community could help, Carter said.

Whitney Morton Webber says her mother has been a mentor, adviser and inspiration.

Webber, 31, says her busy mother always made time to take her and her sister to museums, galleries, plays and concerts when they were young.

“The humanities cause needs someone like her, someone who’s passionate about the issues but is also relatable and thoughtful. She can talk about it in a way people understand,” Webber said.

“She’ll get the job done.”