This Friday will mark the 30th anniversary of the tragic accident that took 13-year-old Warwick resident Todd Morsilli’s life. Morsilli was struck and killed near his home by an East Greenwich junior who had been drinking. In the decades since the accident, the conversation about young people and destructive decisions has changed, thanks in part to the Morsilli family.
Shortly after the accident, Todd’s father Richard Morsilli was asked to speak at a school in New York about what had happened. Following his presentation, freelancer Jo Coudert suggested he share this story nationally. As a result, Richard co-wrote an article with Coudert for Reader’s Digest in July 1984 entitled, “I Still See Him Everywhere.” The article received a great deal of attention, even prompting a nationwide contest for schools to create prevention programs and for ad agencies to create a campaign that included Todd’s story; the winning poster featured music superstar Stevie Wonder.
Richard continued to speak regularly at local schools for 10 years and will do the occasional speaking engagement today.
“It got to a point where it was overwhelming,” said Richard.
New England Tennis showed their support by creating The Todd Morsilli Junior Championship in honor of the nationally ranked young player. The tournament ran for about 15 years.
Also, Richard and his wife, Carole, created The Todd Morsilli Memorial Fund to honor their son, which eventually became The Todd Morsilli Foundation. The group was dedicated to providing financial resources for drinking and driving legislation and interest groups, public awareness and education programs, and the improvement of youth tennis programs and facilities. In addition, the fund provided scholarships for young tennis players.
Richard and Carole made the decision to dissolve the foundation 10 years ago, and the remaining funds were divided between the Rhode Island Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Todd Morsilli Clay Court Tennis Center at Roger Williams Park.
“We felt we did as much as we could do; it was time to pass the baton onto someone else,” Richard said.
While Todd’s death changed his family’s life forever, it also prompted social change, especially in the community of East Greenwich where the driver was from.
“This particular incident was one of the first drinking and driving incidents with teenagers that really struck a chord,” said Robert L. Houghtaling, director of the East Greenwich Drug Program.
Following the accident, the community of East Greenwich petitioned for the creation of a drug education program, and Houghtaling, a counselor at the Kent House substance abuse facility at the time, was brought on to run it. With no template, Houghtaling faced a challenge.
“I basically had to create ways that people could express themselves to me without being threatened by the ‘drug guy,’” he recalled.
So Houghtaling inserted himself into the community, seeing himself as an extension of a teacher. From coaching girls’ basketball to forming a teen center, he worked to find non-threatening ways to connect with students. After 30 years, however, Houghtaling is faced with a new culture and a new kind of young person.
“When I was a kid, kids did drugs to rebel,” he said. “And now, I think a lot of people do drugs to comply and conform.”
In today’s culture, people have a new attitude towards drugs and alcohol. Students have been taught about the dangers of drinking and driving since elementary school but have heard conversations about the legalization of marijuana and have grown up in a culture with an overreliance on prescription medication.
“That wasn’t even on the radar screen,” said Houghtaling when asked about the abuse of prescription drugs. “To go from a rarity to an everyday common phenomenon over a 20- or 30-year period of time, you have to look at what the culture is doing.”
And that is exactly what Houghtaling has done. When working with students today, he makes sure to address social issues, gender issues, stress, relationships and anything else that can serve as an underlying cause of drug and alcohol abuse.
“We’ve broadened what we do to address the social condition,” he said.
The Morsillis note the biggest change is in the way the police enforce against drinking and driving.
“They are doing everything they can humanly do to keep drunk drivers off the road,” Richard said.
The punishment has also changed dramatically. The young girl who was driving the car that struck Todd received community service and was placed on probation; if the same thing happened today, she would likely serve jail time. The Morsillis hope this change deters people from getting behind the wheel intoxicated.
“You would think if you tell someone, ‘If you hurt someone, you are going to jail,’ it would make them stop and think,” Richard said.
While changes have occurred, one thing has remained the same.
“Even though kids have heard it over and over and over again, I think there is always going to be a population of the public with that basic adolescent thought that it’s not going to happen to them,” Houghtaling said.
The Morsillis say they probably used to think the same thing. Today, they believe their story has made people think again.
“I think lives have been saved,” Carole said. “You’re not going to reach everyone, but as they say, if you can save one person, it is worth it.”
While Richard will still go out in the community and tell Todd’s story, the Morsillis have slowed down and are enjoying their time as grandparents to their three grandchildren.
“We wanted to make a difference, and I think we did,” Richard said. “We wanted to keep Todd’s memory alive, and we accomplished that.”
Richard will be speaking at a community forum hosted by Houghtaling and the East Greenwich Drug Program on March 13 from 6:30 to 8:15 p.m. at the Swift Community Center in East Greenwich. For more information contact Houghtaling at 230-2246.