Joseph James Morelli had a way of bringing people together. He would walk into a room and people would gravitate to him. He was not always that confident nor happy. During his freshman year in high school, Joseph went from a happy and outgoing student to suffering from anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. He started to fail all his classes. He had always struggled with reading and grammar, but was told as a first born and a boy, he would catch up. He was average in school. He was labeled as “lazy” and criticized for not trying hard enough. Suspecting a learning challenge, his parents pursued neuropsychology, hired a lawyer, and fought for his accommodations and rights to assistive technology, extra time, notes, and tests being read to him.
With accommodations and an Individual Education Plan (IEP), Joseph excelled, receiving an award in science and math from the State of Utah on his ACTs. His self-confidence grew, and the depression and low self-esteem improved, even though he was at a 6th grade reading level when he graduated from Park City High School in 2012. He started at Montana State University (MSU), focusing on mechanical engineering and excelled socially and academically because in his words “he now felt good about himself”. He loved Bozeman and the outdoors: camping, skiing, and fishing. Joseph was 20 years old and a junior at MSU in Bozeman, MT, when he was tragically killed in a car accident while camping in West Yellowstone with friends in the fall of 2014. Although Joseph was severely dyslexic and diagnosed late in high school, he found his strength, self-esteem, and identity: loving life, studying mechanical engineering, making the Dean’s list, skiing, and being in the great outdoors.
As Joseph’s family, we realized that without the financial and emotional support, Joseph’s academic and social story could have been very different. The scholarship was started in Joseph’s memory to help other young adults with learning differences like Joseph who are pursuing a STEM field after high school get the recognition, support, and some financial help that can so drastically impact their lives.
Charlie Matthews, Joseph’s AP Physics Instructor, shared his thoughts about Joseph:
Kelly Blase, a guidance counselor at Park City High School, came to my class two weeks into the school year, with this down-cast looking young man, convincing both of us that he should enroll in AP Physics. Not a natural request from a special education teacher with a student who was in the midst of a very negative schooling experience and a school year well underway. Day one for Joe in physics began with him arriving half an hour after the 6:45 AM lab class had started. Apologetic, he took a seat front row with students peering at this stranger with his floppy long hair. Project one became how to get to class on time. Joe’s alternative look and manner contrasted the generally conservative academic appearance of the other students. Early on, he asked more about my wall-mounted pictures of family camping trips and dirt bikes than physics. Within a month, still unable to respond to his alarm clock, he would stay after class with maps for me to help him plan dirt bike trips with his Dad. It happened soon before Christmas, where he received one of the top scores in class. Conversations morphed into questions arising from thoughts he was having about how the world works. One day mid winter he wanted to know what engineering was all about. His top score on the AP Physics exam, his excellent performance as a mechanical engineering major at Montana State University and the joyful, humble, inquisitive confidence that he developed, began with Kelly’s thoughtful embrace.
Joe Morelli’s persona went to his soul as an open book that invited and drew those around him into his world. The constant eye contact as he listened to those who spoke was but one indicator of the passion and compassion he had for people. A great analytical mind combined with that heart would have distinguished him as an engineer. We mourn a loss as we celebrate a life that can hopefully rub off at least a little bit on us all.