Stef Morrill is not a native to the River Valley, or even to the Midwest. She was raised in western New York, where her parents still live, and came to Madison with her husband, Joshua, when he came for graduate school. After 17 years, she and Josh (as he was known to everyone else) determined that they wanted to either move into the city, or into the country. Their realtor showed them a house in the hills south of Plain that looked like a bunker. It had been built into the hill 30 years before with south-facing windows to bring in the solar gain, and two wood stoves to make up the heating difference. It spoke to their quirky sides and it was surrounded by woods that reminded Stef of the woods she grew up in. They took the plunge and chose the country.
They were immediately inspired by the people who were now their neighbors. When I asked Stef to describe what it was that struck her about these new neighbors she spoke of an openness, welcoming manner, artistic nature, kindness and a “can-do spirit.” She said that the sense of community they found here made it quickly feel like home. Strangers greeted them walking down the street, people smiled at each other and had encouraging words whether they knew each other, or not.
Stef is someone whose mind seems to be in constant motion. Finding a community that had such a joie de vivre led her and Josh to both jump in, and to contribute (this term came to my family through a children’s book called Sweet Magnolia, by Virginia Kroll, and in that book the term refers to the enthusiasm with which a magnolia tree flowers even before it sets leaves. I have loved the term ever since and it seems perfect to describe both what the communities in the River Valley, and Stef herself). They quickly became a part of the community — always striving to find the best and then add to it. Perhaps this was the perfect place to bring her own joie de vivre to light.
Growing up outside of Bufffalo, Stef says that she “loved everything!” Sitting across the table from her in Spring Green, that enthusiasm feels contagious. Even when talking about the sudden death of Joshua, her partner, husband and best friend of 20-plus years on Feb. 25, 2019, she becomes thoughtful and sad, but only for a moment. His death, she says, was “not just my loss … that brain was going to do great things …” and as she finishes the sentence, she reaches out to happiness, to the moment-to-moment bits of joy in life. She holds on to the lessons she learned becoming an adult in her marriage: Always treat people well, be patient, and make room for everyone at the table.
People, from Stef’s perspective, including herself, are just complex. And every day she tries a little bit to find the happiness all around. She sees it in the little things. In being alive and connecting. In ideas. In dreaming and scheming. In seeing possibilities.
Before Joshua’s death they had been brainstorming a series of public discussions. They came to fruition after his death, and in honor of him are called the Morrill Lecture Series, held at the Octagon Barn between Spring Green and Plain. They have now completed two seasons, bringing in thoughtful speakers such as Pardeep Kaleka, former police officer, teacher and activist who spoke last year on “Healing after Hate;” American Players Theatre core company actors Gavin Lawrence and Melisa Pereyra sharing their stories, and asking us to think about the roles each of us plays in either perpetuating systemic racism, or dismantling it; and Katherine Cramer, political science professor at UW-Madison on “Listening Well.” These have been powerful, thought-provoking and beautiful discussions. I encourage you to look them up — the ones from this year are on YouTube.
Another of Stef’s “schemes” has been a new nonprofit to help our community called River Valley Commons. Its statement of purpose reads: “We believe the River Valley is someplace special and we want it to thrive. Our goal is to increase the well-being of the community and those who live in it through shared resources we develop, bolster and champion.” Through this new organization she is bringing to life Joshua’s lesson of “making room for everyone at the table.” They are raising money and enlisting volunteers for “neighbors helping neighbors.” Sometimes that has meant walking the dog of a neighbor who is having difficulty getting out. Other times it has meant literally sitting at the table with a woman who is living alone, and hearing her stories. The value of time given to someone else, someone whom you didn’t know, just to listen, may be the greatest gift we can give. And Stef has opened a door to make that gift a little easier to give. She hopes to see the organization grow and for more people to feel comfortable asking for help. She wants everyone to know that they are available — to get groceries, to walk dogs, to rake leaves or to share a cup of coffee (maybe even virtually, or over the phone!). Whatever you may need, there are people, your neighbors, who want to help. That “can-do” spirit does not have to stand in the way of accepting that help. In fact, often the accepting can be a way of giving to the giver.
When I asked Stef to talk about her hope for the future of the River Valley, she spoke of her desire for everyone to feel hope for the future. This is an amazing place, and it is only going to keep getting better. She wants to fight the perception that we (and rural areas in general) are declining. She sees us as a model for other rural areas on how to be vibrant, welcoming and a great place to both grow up, and return to. The line I loved the most as she talked about the River Valley was, “There is enough special to go around.” As she sees the special around her, she is clear that she does not want to lose the small-town feel, but rather to take care of it, to nurture it. In light of that, she would love to see more affordable housing and broadband, both of which she feels would encourage those who grow up here and go away for school to come back when they are ready to settle down in this most amazing of regions.
Jennifer Moore-Kerr is a mom, a free spirit and a barefoot dancer living in Spring Green where she can walk to the river and commune with friends. She can often be found welcoming locals and visitors alike to the Spring Green General Store where she tends the register most days. To suggest ideas for future “Bridges” columns, email firstname.lastname@example.org.