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Ron Morgan, Charlotte architect who dreamed big, dies at 74

Ron Morgan, 73, said he was happy even though he expected to have less than 18 weeks to live. "This is sort of a gift," he said. "You could be hit by a Mack truck and not have time to do anything. You could die 10 years with a deteriorating bone disease and have a tortuous death. But I get to work on my dream project."
Ron Morgan, 73, said he was happy even though he expected to have less than 18 weeks to live. "This is sort of a gift," he said. "You could be hit by a Mack truck and not have time to do anything. You could die 10 years with a deteriorating bone disease and have a tortuous death. But I get to work on my dream project." dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Ron Morgan’s zest for life and work didn’t fade in the face of a fatal cancer diagnosis: Instead, his friends and family said Morgan called his last weeks some of the best in his life.

Morgan, a long-time Charlotte architect, developer, planner and civic leader and philanthropist, died Monday at age 74. He moved to Charlotte in 1974 to teach architecture at UNC Charlotte, and he was a founding member of the urban design and architecture practice Dalton Morgan Shook.

“His mind was always busy on his work, and his work was always about making our community a better place with a vision that often seemed impossible,” said Lesley Evers, Morgan’s oldest daughter. She remembered him as a father who encouraged his kids to take risks and loved to laugh. “He was an optimist, and full of hope.”

In addition to his development work, which included The Foundry on Cedar Street in uptown, Morgan in 1995 co-founded Queen City Congress, a group of neighborhood leaders seeking to make local government more accountable. He ran for mayor in 2001.

Morgan’s latest venture was founding 100 Gardens after visiting post-earthquake Haiti in 2010. The Charlotte-based nonprofit promotes aquaponics as a sustainable agriculture model. The group has several gardens underway in Haiti and in Charlotte-area schools including Garinger and Myers Park high schools, as well as at the Stonewall Jackson Youth Development Center, a juvenile detention facility in Concord.

And 100 Gardens is partnering with Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte and West Boulevard-area residents to bring a sustainable community grocery project to the area.

“He was a really inspiring guy, sort of Steve Jobs-like in his obsession with his work,” said Sam Fleming, vice-president of 100 Gardens. But unlike Jobs, Fleming said Morgan didn’t have sharp edges. “He really pushed people to take a step further than they knew they had in them, and he did it in the nicest way possible.”

Despite the nearly 50-year gap in their ages, Fleming said he and Morgan became both friends after they met five years ago and founded 100 Gardens. Fleming said they shared an interest in helping underprivileged communities. And they had something even simpler in common: “We like people a lot,” said Fleming.

When Morgan traveled to Haiti in the wake of that country’s devastating earthquake, he was looking for ways to help design shelters for some of the 1.5 million people left homeless. He came home convinced that food production was a greater need, and got interested in aquaponics, which combines aquaculture (raising fish) with hydroponics (growing plants without soil). Water from the fish waste fertilizes the plants, which clean and filter the water. The technique uses less space, energy and water than either would alone.

But late last year, Morgan received a devastating diagnosis. Cancer was likely to kill him in just a few months, his doctor said, and there was little chance he would survive. Instead of falling into self-pity, Morgan threw himself into his work and spending time with people he cared about.

“He was talking about 100 Gardens and our new projects and still coming up with ideas until about a week ago,” said Fleming. He said Morgan loved the chance to talk with all the people who visited him, and said it was one of the best times in his life.

“He was filled with happiness and joy,” said Evers. “He was incredibly grateful to all the people that were in his life. He actually said he enjoyed the process of dying. That’s how much he enjoyed life. He squeezed every drop out of it until the end.”

Earlier in May, Morgan received the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his volunteer work, signed by President Barack Obama.

Morgan had known his wife since they were 14-year-olds in Berkeley, Calif., and they were married for more than five decades. They had three children and five grandchildren.

In December, he described how they reacted to the news of his diagnosis when they got home from the doctor.

“When we got to the kitchen table, we had a good cry,” Morgan said. “Then we talked about dancing together as sweethearts.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

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