Morris Andrews, who spent two decades fighting for teachers’ union rights as head of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, died Thursday night from complications caused by a stroke and cancer. He was 83.
Michael Andrews, Morris’ son and assistant principal at Sweetwater Middle School in Gwinnett County, Georgia, said he will always remember his father as a “master motivator.”
“He could talk a dog off a meat truck,” he said.
But it was what his father did with that ability that made him so special, he said.
“At the core of it, he just cared about people … people he knew didn’t have a fair shake at things,” he said. “It was always the underdog, he advocated for those without a voice. … He truly fought the good fight.”
Andrews became executive director of WEAC, the state’s largest teachers union, in 1972. At the time, the association of 40,000 teachers had little involvement in state politics or lobbying efforts.
But that soon changed. Andrews was considered a force to be reckoned with in the statehouse halls and advocated for teachers, bus drivers, aides and other unionized staff.
When Andrews retired for health reasons in 1992, WEAC had grown to 62,000 members, a 175-person staff and a $10 million-a-year budget.
Andrews often went toe-to-toe with elected officials, including Republican Tommy Thompson, who served in the state Assembly and served as governor from 1986 until 2001.
Thompson and Andrews often butted heads on education policy, but Thompson said their opposing views didn’t diminish his respect for him.
“He was a great advocate for education in America,” Thompson said.
When Thompson was elected governor, the two found some common ground to work on, Thompson said. Andrews served on Thompson’s Local Property Tax Relief Commission in the late 1980s.
That doesn’t mean the pair didn’t have their public spats, including debates over policies such as mediation-arbitration and early retirement.
The two remained friends even after they left their posts.
Thompson said he spoke on the phone with Andrews Thursday morning before he died.
“We set aside our differences,” Thompson said. “He and I became extremely close.”
Andrews remained active working behind the scenes in Democratic politics through the 2011 protests over Act 10, the Republican law that stripped public-sector unions of their collective bargaining rights and caused union membership to plummet, and recent elections.
Outside of work, Andrews, who was a former Michigan all-state football player from Big Rapids High, also was known as a passionate high school football coach. He also spent time as a government teacher.
“I think there is a whole generation of young people, now in their early or mid-level careers, who will say how much Morris helped them get to where they are today,” said Andrews’ wife, Kris. “He would help guide you, not tell you, and guide you along the path.”
At home Andrews was an “engaged and loving father,” said daughter Chris, who is the director of development and alumni relations with Campus School of Smith College in North Hampton, Massachusetts.
“He was always available,” she said. “He taught us that we could do anything that we set our minds to. I think that’s what he thought of children in general.”
State Journal reporter Shelley K. Mesch contributed to this report.