Elizabeth Morse Genius, the first child and only daughter of Charles Hosmer Morse, inherited from her father not only great wealth but respect for hard work and industry, a deep sense of loyalty, and a family tradition of philanthropy.
Charles Hosmer Morse had made his own fortune. Born in 1833 to a humble Vermont farm family, at the age of 17 he began working as a $50-a-year apprentice at E. & T. Fairbanks & Co., whose patented platform scale had revolutionized shipping. His rise there was rapid. After his apprenticeship, he moved to the firm’s Boston office as bookkeeper; in 1855, he was transferred to New York as a clerk and salesman. Two years later he was sent to open new territory in Chicago, helping to establish a sales agency there, Fairbanks & Greenleaf, which he joined the following year.
By 1866, Morse had opened his own offices, Fairbanks, Morse & Company, in Cincinnati, adding letterpresses, warehouse trucks, and coffee mills to his product catalog and opening satellite sales offices in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis. Three years later, however, when the founder of Fairbanks & Greenleaf became mortally ill, Morse returned to Chicago to become Greenleaf’s partner and eventual successor. In 1871, just one day after the Great Chicago Fire burned their offices to the ground, Morse, using charred books and papers he had rescued from a safe, reopened the firm for business, this time under the name it would bear for the next eight decades: Fairbanks, Morse & Company.
Fairbanks scales remained an important part of the firm’s line, but in the years that followed the fire Morse steadily expanded not only his agency’s product lines but also its scope of operations. Fairbanks Morse became the exclusive agent for—with Morse himself frequently securing controlling interest in—companies that manufactured the fundamental tools of industrial and economic growth: windmills, steam engines and pumps, electrical motors, stationary and marine diesel engines, rail cars, and farm equipment. The company he passed on to his sons in 1915 was a fully diversified global enterprise, with branches throughout the U.S. and in Canada, Europe, South America, and China.
In his later years, Morse spent his winters in Florida, where he had purchased significant acreage and built an estate in 1904. It was at Winter Park that he established the self-effacing, practical style of philanthropy that would be adopted by his daughter and his grandson Richard M. Genius, Jr. Morse gave the community its first town hall—on the condition that his gift remain anonymous during his lifetime—and donated land for its Central Park, with the stipulation that it remain parkland forever. When he died in 1921, a friend wrote to Elizabeth, “He had a character that will be an inspiration to his children, his grandchildren, and his great-grandchildren for years to come.”
Loyalty, like philanthropy, was a hallmark of both the Morse and Genius families. Charles Hosmer Morse had retained Edwin M. Ashcraft’s Chicago law firm for his business and personal affairs; Elizabeth Morse Genius and her son, Richard M. Genius, Jr., retained Ashcraft’s son Raymond, whose son-in-law, William H. Alexander, continued to represent the families and became The Elizabeth Morse and Elizabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trusts’ first individual Co-trustee. James L. Alexander, William’s son, took on that role in 1997 upon his father’s death. The banks that today serve as Co-trustees, Bank of America, N.A., and JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., are descendants of Continental Illinois National Bank & Trust Company and First National Bank of Chicago, respectively—banks with whom the families had long-standing relationships. The elder Morse had been a director of First National Bank; his grandson, Richard M. Genius, Jr., worked as a clerk in the bank’s service unit as a young man.
Though she spent time in Florida, Vermont, and New York, Elizabeth Morse’s life was rooted in Chicago, where she was born in 1872. Her family lived in Kenwood, on Chicago's then fashionable South Side. Their 20-room mansion, built by a prominent architect in the cutting-edge Richardsonian Romanesque style, was filled with custom-made arts and crafts furniture, Tiffany glass, and paintings by artists ranging from Albert Bierstadt to American Impressionists such as Edward Duffner, Guy Wiggins, and John Carlson.
At school, Elizabeth studied music and art, becoming a competent amateur painter, and after a year in Europe, she went on to attend Wellesley College, from which she received a degree in art. Always close to her father, she returned to the family’s Kenwood home following her studies. On the death of her mother in 1903, Elizabeth assumed the role of hostess, helping her father fulfill the social and civic responsibilities attendant on his position. When she married Dr. Richard M. Genius in 1905, the Chicago mansion was Charles Hosmer Morse’s wedding present to the newlyweds.
Motherhood and family were paramount to Elizabeth Morse Genius, and her two children—Richard, born in 1908, and Jeanette, born the following year—grew up in the shelter of her love. When Jeannette contracted influenza during the epidemic of 1928, Elizabeth’s maternal devotion exacted a terrible price. Falling ill with pneumonia, she died in March of that year; her obituary suggested that anxiety over her daughter’s health was “one of the factors that prevented Mrs. Genius’ recovery.”
For Richard, the loss was profound. In life, her love and example had guided him. In death, the values that she held true—industry, humility, compassion, self-sacrifice, loyalty, generosity, and beauty—became his compass and the foundation of a lifelong commitment to high principles and integrity. Before his death in 1992, Richard M. Genius, Jr., established The Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust and the Elizabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trust to honor his mother’s memory and be a living testament to her life.
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