30 Years Later, Todd Morsilli's Parents Still Grieve
The 13-year-old boy was killed when a drunk 17-year-old EGHS student hit him while he was walking on First Avenue in the middle of the day.
Richard Morsilli can't speak. He's in the middle of a story about his son Todd and he stops mid-sentence, caught up by the raw emotion his words recall.
Thirty years ago last week, 13-year-old Todd Morsilli was walking with his cousin on First Avenue just past the split with Division Street when a high school junior hit him while driving west on First Avenue. Todd was thrown up onto a snowbank. He was declared dead before his parents were able to get to the hospital.
"They took you in a room and they told you Todd was hit by a car and he didn’t make it," says Carol Morsilli, Todd's mother.
The driver, a 17-year-old East Greenwich High School student, kept driving, finally coming to a stop after she turned left onto Howland Drive and hit a pole.
The incident made East Greenwich examine its approach to teen drinking. Shortly after Todd's death, the group Citizens Who Care (CWC) was born, a designated juvenile police officer was named, and the town hired Bob Houghtaling to serve as drug counselor.
The girl was arrested; she was given probation and community service. She has never been publicly identified, though many at the time knew who she was, according to an editorial by then-Pendulum published Bill Foster.
For the Morsillis, who live in the same house in Heritage Park in Cowesett that Todd had left from that Tuesday never to return, the relative lack of punishment was difficult to take.
"I thought she should get something," says Carol Morsilli. "What message did it send to the other students?"
Carol says she didn't want jail time for the girl. Rather, she wanted home confinement, at least on the weekends. And, she wanted to the girl, now a 47-year-old woman, to reach out. "I wanted to show her what she took away from us."
Todd, a blond-haired tennis phenom (he was ranked 50th in the country for juniors at the time of his death), lives on in a stack of black-and-white photos taken at a tournament in New Haven the previous summer. The photos remain a treasure for Richard and Carol – they arrived in the mail after Todd's death, sent by the photographer. The photographer commented how, for some reason, she'd just taken a lot of photos of Todd that day and that now she was so glad she had.
"That was a blessing," says Carol.
The death all these years later still hurts. "It’s like throwing a rock in the pond. We still feel the effects of Todd’s death, the ripple effects."
"There’s no such thing as closure," says Richard. "The reality hits you: he’s no longer here."
He remembers Todd's scores and matches like they were yesterday. Todd wore a cap during matches ("his lucky cap") and once played a championship match with his left hand because his right hand was injured – and won. He would often lose the first set then even be down in the second set, but would somehow found the strength to continue playing, more often than not pulling out a win.
"All I wanted to do was watch his matches," Richard says. Even now, he admits, he'll talk to anyone who will listen about Todd's tennis accomplishments.
For Carol, it's not the tennis that she thinks of when she thinks about Todd. "I think of that little boy that was always clinging to my leg, always giving me a hug."
The Morsillis have three other children, all close in age to Todd, so there was no stopping life after Todd died – a double-edged sword.
"We went through the motions of trying to be parents," says Carol. "Our children lost who their mother and father were at the time. You’re just trying to keep it together.
"You had to still go on. I had to take David over to the tennis club where Todd had played," she says, referring to one of the other children. She herself had been a recreational player and returned to it for a time, but that got too hard.
They founded a tennis tournament in Todd's name that was held for 20 years at the grass courts at Roger William Park in Providence. That tennis complex was renamed in his memory: the Todd Morsilli Tennis Center. Money raised from the tournament funded substance-abuse programs across the state for years.
And for years, Richard spoke at school assemblies and at the State House about the dangers of teenage drinking.
"If you knew what it’s like to lose a child, you wouldn’t drink," he would tell the students. Eventually, though he began to feel his words weren't really being heard.
Carol, meanwhile, found something to help her continue living and their house is a testament to it. She's become a decorative painter of furniture, mainly, but walls too, and trim.
"My therapy has been physical work," she said. "It's something that takes me away."
Their daughter and her son live with the Morsillis. The boy, Brandon, is 13.
For Carol, having a child in the house has been a chance to take advantage of every moment with him, noting how busy life was when Todd was that age.
"With Brandon, I always do those little things."