SPRING, Texas — At the bottom of the bulletin board in Madeline Morris' bedroom hangs a quote by Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, a former member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "Kindness is the essence of greatness," it reads, and it was by those words that Madie lived her life.
The 18-year-old student at Brigham Young University was traveling with her brother and his fiance to spend Thanksgiving in Arizona when a tragic accident cut her life short: Just before dawn, her brother, Taylor Morris, 23, fell asleep. The car went off the road near Mount Carmel.
The car landed upside down, but Taylor's fiancee, Bailee Brinkerhoff, was able to get out of the car and reach her cell phone to call for help. She propped Taylor up to drain the blood from his lungs while they waited for paramedics to arrive. Madie was killed instantly.
The group had not planned to leave that night — instead, they were going to wait for the morning — but Bailee and Taylor had gotten engaged the night of Nov. 19 and the trio could not wait to share the news with Bailee's family in Arizona. Their adrenaline carried them through most of the night, but after that morning, Taylor blamed himself for what had happened.
"His initial reaction was, ‘It's all my fault,'" according to Rachelle Morris, Taylor and Madie's sister. "Our mom told him he was never allowed to say that again. He said, ‘I just have to recognize the Lord saved me, and Madie was killed instantly. I have to recognize it was an accident. Now I just need to live my life in a way that embodies the spirit of Madie.'"
Greatness in the form of kindness — that was Madie's legacy. The family has received hundreds of notes from people who were touched by her kind words and sunny outlook. "Her smile and laugh was contagious,'" read one letter from a classmate at BYU. "She truly struck me as incredibly friendly and fun to be around," read another.
"She had a bright personality," "I admire her inner and outer beauty," "She was a wonderful person to be around." "She was a great light in the lives of all those who she met." Every letter said the same thing, according to Rachelle Morris: Madie went out of her way to say hi; her smile was effortless, genuine and beautiful.
Morris said Madie was preparing to serve a mission for the LDS church. She, along with her three roommates, had made the decision after Pres. Thomas S. Monson announced in October that women could serve beginning at age 19, instead of 21.
After Pres. Monson made the announcement, Morris text messaged Madie to see if she had received an answer to her prayers about whether she should go. "YES!!!!!!!!!!" was the response. And as the two sisters stood in the Conference Center later that weekend, singing "Called to Serve," Morris put her arm around Madie's shoulders.
"It was one of the proudest sister moments you could have," she said.
Madie's bishop in her ward at BYU later wrote a letter to the Morris family, explaining that the two had discussed her serving a mission and how he admired the young woman's kindness, generosity and spirit. "He said the great thing was it was never fake," Morris said.
She doesn't know where Madie got the quote on her bulletin board that came to mean so much — "probably at Young Women's," she said — but the words embody her sister's spirit.
"She was great because she was so kind," she said. "Yes, she did well academically, and she was gorgeous, but she had to work so hard at being successful. She never let it get to her head."
Morris told stories of the sacrifices Madie made to be successful in school — how she worked so hard to be successful where perhaps other people would have accepted defeat. It started in third grade, after Madie had been testing in the bottom quartile in reading for three years. "She realized she was not really a successful student, and she committed to becoming one of the ‘smart kids,'" Morris said.
By the end of fourth grade, Madie was reading at her grade level, and by the end of fifth grade, she was testing into middle school honors classes. And the same thing happened when she took the ACT: not happy with a low score the first two times she took the test, she studied for three months to get her score to where it needed to be for BYU.
"She established early on a foundation of hard work, patience, and dedication to excellence," Morris said. She said Madie realized she was never going to be the smartest kid in her class, but she could be the hardest working — and that was what was most remarkable about her success.
"I will miss her more than I will miss anyone or anything," Morris said. "There is no doubt in my mind what kind of person she was or what she is doing on the other side."
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