Teacher Is Honored for His Long Career in Russian Language

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With characteristic modesty, teacher George Morris describes himself as "one of those people who hasn't had to worry about life. I've been handed the nice things along the way."

On May 13, Morris received a prestigious international award, the Pushkin Medal, named for the Russian poet, at an elegant ceremony at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Friends, colleagues and students of Morris say no one is more deserving of the award. The award recognizes Morris' almost 30 years of teaching the Russian language at St. Louis University High School.

"He's reluctant to acknowledge all the attention he has been getting," said Mark Tychonievich, chairman of the department of foreign languages at the high school. "He really does deserve it."

"It couldn't go to a better guy," said senior Brendan O'Malley. "It's a really difficult language. He has made it easy . . . as easy as it can be."

The medal is awarded by the International Association of Teachers of the Russian Language and Culture. Morris was one of six recipients of the medal this year and the only American.

"It's not the goal for which he has worked all these years," said Morris' wife, Beth. "But it's just really gratifying."

Beth Morris proudly displayed photographs from the ceremony attended by the Russian Charges d'Affaires, Vladimir Chkhikvishvili, currently the highest ranking Russian official in the United States, as well as former medal winners and Russian-language experts from across the country.

"The biggest thing that honored me was that the president of our school, Father Robert Costello, made the trip to Washington," George Morris said. "It made me feel appreciated. It comes down to being an award of all the things I've done over my career."

Morris, considered one of the most respected Russian teachers in the United States and Moscow, has a lengthy list of achievements. In December he traveled to Toronto to accept the Excellence in Teaching at the Secondary Level Award from the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages.

A textbook he co-authored with two Russians was published in 1993 and received enthusiastic reviews. It is being used in 350 high schools and 75 colleges and universities. Morris recently finished the second of what is to be a four-volume set.

But Morris is perhaps best known for the faculty-and-student-exchange program he helped organize between St. Louis University High School and Moscow School 23. The program, established in 1988, was one of the first organized after an agreement signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in 1987.

"We were one of the original partners in the High School Academic Partners Program," Morris said.

Each spring he takes about 20 students to Moscow School 23 for four weeks. In the fall, Russian students from School 23 visit St. Louis. For the past four years a faculty member from School 23 has come to St. Louis University High School to teach Russian for the school year. Irina Kotok is this year's exchange teacher and had high praise for Morris.

"He is a linguist in the very best use of this word," Kotok said. "He is the best non-native speaker I have ever heard."

But beyond his mastery of the language, Kotok credits Morris with an understanding of both Russian culture and the students he teaches.

Referring to his textbook she said: "It's a very good book, not only for grammar but for understanding the culture and history of Russia. …