In Memoriam: Tom Morain

Tom Morain '69

For almost 20 years of his life, Tom Morain ’69 expressed his love of Graceland through service to the university, serving under six different presidents in roles that ranged from helping bring Iowa Public Radio to Southern Iowa to expanding cultural and educational opportunities for youth through AmeriCorps and the Dekko Foundation.

Morain’s obituary begins: “Throughout his life, Tom Morain was less determined to accomplish extraordinary things than to do ordinary things with extraordinary love – and ended up doing both.” To those of us who were lucky enough to know and work with him at this university, this is extraordinarily true.

His giftedness seemingly knew no bounds. He was an accomplished historian, writer and musician. Not only that, he was the kind of person everyone just wanted to be around. Barbara Hiles ’72 Mesle described it best when she memorialized Morain, “Literally everyone who knew you wants to hear your jokes and eat pie with you, or listen to your radio show on Iowa history, or hear YOU play the piano at their own memorial service.”

Morain was well regarded by the historical societies of Iowa, contributing to the State Historical Society of Iowa and serving the cause of Iowa museums and Iowa history by helping establish an undergraduate internship program at Living History Farms.

In 2002, Morain received the Humanities Iowa Distinguished Service Award from Humanities Iowa, the state arm of the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2009, the State Historical Society also honored him with its highest designation, the Harlan/Petersen Award for Lifetime Service to Iowa History. In 2015, Governor Branstad appointed Morain to the Teaching Iowa History Committee of the Department of Education to review educational standards and set goals for K-12 curriculum. And the Iowa Museum Association honored him in 2016 with its leadership award.

In his nomination for the leadership award, Leo Landis, curator at the State Historical Museum and himself a graduate of the Living History Farms internship program, wrote, “Tom’s guidance and mentorship allowed me to see that museum work could be more than a summer job. I could see his passion for sharing Iowa’s story in his training methods for interpreters, his public program planning and research, and the work being done by every staff member Tom supervised. I was struck by the sense of mission he held for his work and how that translated into the entire interpretation staff. His inspiration changed my life.”

Most importantly, Morain was a loving husband and father. He and his wife, Vikki Updike ’69 Morain, met at Graceland before Tom moved on to earn his doctorate in American Studies at the University of Iowa. His two sons, Joel ’97 and Michael ’01, both attended Graceland as well.

Morain valued his relationships with his family and friends above all else. Those who encountered him saw his joy and orneriness in the way he told stories. One legend of his ability to tell stories was how he leveraged his position as a writer for The Tower to further the exploits of Rod Dixon, a fictional Graceland student fabricated by members of Cheville House and the class of 1969.

Morain away Oct. 10, 2020, after a battle with cancer. His memory and his legacy of service at Graceland will not be soon forgotten.

Mesle remembered Morain as the rare combination of brilliant and humble. “In our culture, so many of the most brilliant people are also never humble,” she said. “Humble people don't come off as brilliant, sadly. But Tom was both.”

Morain was preceded in death by his parents and sister-in-law Dagmar Morain Clark. He is survived by his wife, Vikki; sons Joel (Abby Rodd) of Cooperstown, New York, and Michael (Heath Smith) of Des Moines; siblings Rick (Kathy) of Jefferson, Bill (Sherry) of Lamoni, Steve (Erna) of Waukee and Deb (Randy) Burnight of Sioux City; sisters-in-law Diane Morain of Houston, Texas, and Clay Pytlik of Morgan Hill, California; brother-in-law Lee (Marian) Updike of Independence, Missouri; and many, many cousins, nieces, nephews and friends – including one who recently described him as "the epitome of contagious joy."