Leaders & Legacies: Joe and Joan Morrissey, pillars of the community

Pillars of the community

Leaders & Legacies: Stories of Local Impact is an ongoing series brought to you in partnership with the Daily Herald and DuPage Foundation. It highlights the inspiring stories of local individuals, families and businesses who have made or are making a lasting impact for our community through their generosity and leadership.

The series continues with Wheaton resident Joan S. Morrissey and her late husband, Dr. Joseph S. Morrissey (1939-2019).

In a 1961 address, President-elect John F. Kennedy paraphrased a verse from the Bible. He said, "For of those to whom much is given, much is required."

Longtime Wheaton residents and engaged volunteers Joan and the late Joe Morrissey couldn't agree more.

It's a mantra Joe and Joan lived by and recited numerous times throughout the past 60 years. From early ages, their children, Margaret, Joseph Jr. and Michael, recall their parents leading by example and passing any good deeds they received forward.

"Our parents have always been extremely engaged in their community," said Michael Morrissey. "They were teaching, attending board meetings, acting in and directing plays, planning events and fundraisers, walking in the Fourth of July parade, teaching the 6 a.m. workout class at the YMCA, and handling patient emergencies."

When the Morrisseys said they were going to do something - and that happened frequently - they were all in.

Though they grew up only blocks away from each other on the Northwest side of Chicago, Joe and Joan did not meet until their postgraduate school years. They married in 1964 and started their family shortly after. When Joe returned home from the Navy in 1969, the Morrisseys' growing family needed somewhere to live. Joe had read about a dental practice for sale in Wheaton and, after meeting with then-owner Jack Moss on a Friday, Joe started work the following Monday.

Joe Morrissey served in the Navy on the USS Holland from 1967-69. Upon arriving home, he and Joan purchased a dental practice in Wheaton where they remained for the next 50 years. Courtesy of the Morrissey family

"We took over the practice downstairs, moved into the house upstairs, and immediately immersed ourselves in that neighborhood," Joan said. "One shoe led the other."

Around Dental Health of Wheaton, the community-minded couple had found their place in the world, with everything they needed just a stone's throw away.

Joan credits Wheaton Drama, a source of high-quality, live theater, with many of their friendships and the sense of community they found during those early years in Wheaton. In addition to the theater, Joan spent many years involved with the College of DuPage, Cub Scouts, People's Resource Center, and Wheaton Community Association.

Joan also served on the Wheaton Public Library board of trustees for 29 years, one of her longest-running volunteer roles. Initially appointed by Wheaton Mayor R.H. Barger in 1978, Joan served as an advocate for the library and was instrumental in many projects during her tenure, most notably the construction of its present 124,000-square-foot building. She considers the library one of the jewels of Wheaton and is honored to have been a part of its volunteer leadership for so long.

Joan Morrissey, third from right, with fellow Wheaton Public Library trustees at the 2004 groundbreaking for the building renovation. Courtesy of Wheaton Public Library

It's no surprise that Joan, an avid reader and advocate for education, found herself involved with the library for so many years. She and Joe discovered early on how fulfilling it was to have their personal interests be the guide for their giving. They have been committed volunteers in ways that were enjoyable for themselves and also helpful for others.

"Supporting these organizations was such a huge part of our lives, but it didn't feel like work," Joan said. "We received far more from the relationships we made and the impact we had than what we gave."

Likewise, Joe's individual passions were the backbone for his volunteerism. He spent many hundreds of hours as a publicly elected trustee of College of DuPage, a director of the former Community Bank of Wheaton/Glen Ellyn, and an active volunteer for Wheaton Lions Club.

Joe was also instrumental in establishing the dental hygiene program at College of DuPage and the DuPage Community Dental Clinic, eventually taken over by the Chicago Dental Society Foundation, which provides free, basic dental care to low-income patients.

"Dad believed there was immeasurable dignity in caring for people's dental health, regardless of their circumstances," said Joseph Morrissey Jr. "He saw value in all people and did his part to build them up."

When Joe retired from his full-time dental practice, he volunteered regularly at the free clinic. When the clinic was spun off from its original organization, Joe advocated tirelessly to secure funding and ensure these critical services continued under another entity.

A caregiver at heart, Joe Morrissey grew Dental Health of Wheaton into a large, successful practice. Twenty years later, Joan still hears "We miss Dr. Joe!" when she visits the office. Courtesy of the Morrissey family

When not giving their time and talents to the community, Joe and Joan enjoyed traveling with friends and family, including their nine grandchildren, whom they cherish. They vacationed all over the world and spent many weekends skiing in the mountains or visiting their cottage in Michigan. It was 52 years ago that Don and Cay Fischer met the Morrisseys. Their dentist was unavailable, so it was Dr. Joe whom they had to see.

"It's unusual for two couples to get along as well as we did," said Cay Fischer. "We hit it off immediately, and from that moment on, they made everything we did more fun."

A self-described practical jokester, Joe met his match with Don and their close-knit group of friends who were known to pull pranks on each other regularly.

Joan, center, and Joe Morrissey, upper right, center, enjoyed annual vacations with friends including theater-focused trips to Stratford, London. Pictured clockwise from top: Jim and Sharon Huck, Marc and Linda Lovett, Edie Fitts, Cay Fischer, Betty Bradshaw, and Don Fischer. Courtesy of the Morrissey family

As their personal success grew, the Morrisseys' opportunities for charitable giving did as well. Friends Cleve Carney, and Jerry and Betty Bradshaw introduced the Morrisseys to DuPage Foundation, a local nonprofit organization focused on raising the quality of life throughout DuPage County through its various grant programs and helping individuals, families, and organizations achieve their charitable goals, locally and beyond.

The Morrisseys opened a donor-advised fund at the foundation to support their favorite causes now and in perpetuity, including early childhood education, the arts, and basic human needs, like access to nutritious food.

Friends and family of the Morrisseys volunteer at a Northern Illinois Food Bank mobile food pantry in 2014. A grant from the Morrisseys' donor-advised fund at DuPage Foundation funded the distribution event. Courtesy of the Morrissey family

The Morrisseys' decision to include DuPage Foundation in their estate plan and become members of its Legacy Society came as no surprise to those who know them.

"Joe and Joan value people, education, and community," said Don Fischer. "They make the world a better place, and this pledge ensures their philanthropy will strengthen future generations, too."

With awe-inspiring changes seen in DuPage County demographics over the last 20 years, Joan is confident that DuPage Foundation will remain in tune with the community's evolving needs.

"Joe and I were proud to make a financial commitment now that will fund solutions for those future needs," Joan said.

Passionate about the diverse countywide support it provides, Joan joined DuPage Foundation's board of trustees in 2006 and remains a trustee today.

"Most of my previous volunteerism was focused in Wheaton," Joan said. "But community transcends town boundaries, so I was excited to broaden the scope of my philanthropy."

Joan has served on, and chaired, numerous foundation committees and initiatives, including its COVID-19 Response Fund.

Established in 2020, the COVID-19 Response Fund quickly raised and awarded nearly $1.8 million to nearly 100 local nonprofits working on the front lines of the pandemic and required experienced volunteers to act quickly and spend hundreds of hours reviewing grant applications.

"Joan agreed to participate and did not disappoint, making herself available as needed," said Barb Szczepaniak, DuPage Foundation's vice president for programs. "I relied on her extensive knowledge of our county and its developing needs during this time-sensitive process."

When Joan is asked about her most impactful volunteer work, DuPage Foundation's Bright & Early DuPage initiative comes to mind. As its inaugural chairperson, Joan remains a champion for the program designed to ensure all DuPage County children from birth to age 5 are prepared for success in kindergarten and beyond.

"Ensuring these children receive a solid educational foundation now will change their lives, and our community will reap those benefits," Joan said. "The substantial impact this initiative provides has been proven."

Ten years after its inception, Bright & Early DuPage continues to grow exponentially each year, increasing access to quality education and support services for hundreds of area families with limited resources.

"Joan is one of the reasons for the initiative's success," Szczepaniak said.

Strong Families (formerly Project HELP), a program of YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, received a $25,000 grant in 2022 from Bright & Early DuPage, a DuPage Foundation initiative. Joan Morrissey, second from left, has been instrumental in Bright & Early DuPage's success over the past decade. Also pictured are DuPage Foundation staff and volunteer leaders; YWCA Metropolitan Chicago CEO Nicole Robinson, front, third from left, and Chief Resilience Officer Shelley Bromberek-Lambert, front, right. Courtesy of DuPage Foundation

Both from humble beginnings, Joe and Joan prioritized their education and worked hard to pursue advanced degrees. Joan was the first person in her family to go to college, earning the opportunity through a theater scholarship to Barat College in Lake Forest. Furthering her education introduced her to a whole new world of people, skills, and opportunities. "It changed my life," Joan said.

The Morrissey Dental Hygiene Scholarship is another way Joe and Joan encourage education among others. They believe this act of paying it forward benefits both the recipients and the communities in which they live, work, and play. This scholarship is awarded to three College of DuPage dental students each year.

Like Joan, Joe was proud to support himself from an early age, even paying for his own Catholic education.

Described as one of the hardest-working men people have ever known, Joe had more than 50 different jobs during his life. These jobs included milkman, blood bank attendant, bricklayer and photographer, among others.

But it was being a dentist that suited Joe best. A healer at heart, he believed taking care of others was everyone's responsibility and led by example with this in mind.

"Many a Christmas or holiday morning was spent delivering dentures to nursing homes or going to the office to handle patient emergencies," said Margaret Cross, the Morrisseys' daughter. "Our parents recognized how fortunate they were in health and wealth, and there was a responsibility to pass that on."

Joe and Joan Morrissey with their children and grandchildren in 2017. Courtesy of the Morrissey family

Before Joe passed away in 2019, he assured those around him that he had "won the race," a reference to his passion for running and a life he considered well-lived. But it is those around him - family, friends, and thousands of community members - who won the jackpot. They are the ones directly impacted, in countless ways, by his and Joan's generosity.

"Sharing time, treasure and talent are traits of a true leader," Szczepaniak said. "Joe and Joan have been generous with all three, which makes them extraordinary."

It was never accolades or the limelight that Joe and Joan were searching for through their philanthropy. Instead, they found a fellowship of generous neighbors who, together, committed to doing a world of good in their own backyard - and they had fun doing it.

Though they didn't set out intending to create a legacy, that's exactly what they did.

"Some people shy away from what needs to be done," said Michael Morrissey. "Our parents raised their hands."

Joe and Joan Morrissey celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2014 with a party at Waterleaf Restaurant at College of DuPage. Courtesy of the Morrissey family

• The Leaders & Legacies series is brought to you by the Legacy Society of DuPage Foundation. Suggestions for future stories can be sent to Mike Sitrick, president & CEO, at Interested in learning more about how you can make an impact or create a legacy for your community and favorite causes? Learn more at or call (630) 665-5556. DuPage Foundation is located at 3000 Woodcreek Drive, Suite 310, in Downers Grove, IL 60515.

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