Leslie C. Morris had a heart for children, particularly those with special needs.
The stay-at-home-mom-turned-educator spent nearly four decades in the Hillsborough County school system, where she tirelessly strived to improve the lives of her students.
"She wanted to make a difference," her daughter Julie Hill said. "She wanted to help children. She wanted to do something worthwhile with children."
It was that legacy of compassion that friends and family recalled Thursday as they remembered Morris, who died Sunday at 69.
"She was a very special lady," said Jerry Jackson, leadership director of schools in the Plant City area.
Morris spent most of her career in schools in east Hillsborough County. Her longest tenure was at the Dover Exceptional Center, later renamed the Willis Peters Exceptional Center, where she started teaching in 1974. She was later appointed administrator and stayed there until she was appointed principal at Tampa's Caminiti Exceptional Center in 1999. She finished out her career at Simmons Career Center in Plant City, where she was principal from 2004 until her June 2010 retirement.
Lucy Edwards, who worked for Morris as a data processor at Caminiti and as a secretary at Simmons, said Morris had a way of reaching special needs students.
"She just had a gift about her. She was wonderful with the students. She loved them, and they loved her," she said.
Dorinda Rountree, Jackson's executive secretary, said Morris didn't want Willis Peters students, who include those who are blind or can't walk, to miss out on high school traditions such as a prom, so she and husband Donald founded one about 12 years ago.
"Exceptional children were always special with Miss Leslie," said Rountree, who took over the prom after Donald Morris died in 2009. "Once you met her, you couldn't help but love her."
Even after she retired, Morris didn't stop helping children, her daughter said. She volunteered as a surrogate parent for exceptional children in the school district and served on the board of directors at the MacDonald Training Center, which helps people with special needs.
She also loved doting over the other passion in her life: her grandchildren Shayla Morris, 15, and Evan Hill, 14.
Funeral services are 7 p.m. today at Stowers Funeral Home, 401 W. Brandon Blvd., Brandon. The family will receive friends at the funeral home from 5 to 7 p.m.
Besides her daughter and grandchildren, survivors include her sons, Donald and Michael; sister Mary Jane Johnson; brother David Cooper; and several nieces and nephews.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to MacDonald Training Center, 5420 W. Cypress St., Tampa.