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Samsung's Catherine Morse keeps the focus on giving

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Not infrequently, well-meaning Austinites tell Catherine Morse they intend to start a nonprofit.

"If there's a problem, there's already a nonprofit dedicated to it," Morse says. "Too many have the same mission. It's overwhelming. It's exhausting."

Overlapping charitable missions can lead to duplicated costs and sapped effectiveness. Still, the general counsel and director of public affairs for Samsung Austin Semiconductor contends that area nonprofit leaders get one thing categorically right.

"They pay attention to the fact that there are two distinct Austins," Morse says. "We have a hip Austin that's leading the nation in job growth. And then we have a huge swath of Austin that we are leaving behind."

That's why Morse concentrates on groups such as Communities in Schools, First Tee, Capital Area Food Bank and the United Way for Greater Austin, which recently received an unprecedented $1 million gift from the South Korea semiconductor maker.

"I pay attention to the data, and it scares me," Morse says of the city's education gap. "It should scare all of us."

New Orleans-born Morse, 47, knows a little something about beating educational odds. Though she came from a middle-class background, there was no guarantee that this tomboy would excel in suburban Chicago and Houston schools.

"I was a bit of the Rodney Dangerfield of the family when it came to intellect," she laughs. "My brother and sister were extraordinary students."

Although her siblings attended elite universities, Morse dominated the sorority basketball league at Louisiana State University.

"Anything athletic I enjoy doing," says Morse, who wears her reddish hair in a sporty bob. "We still go out and shoot baskets in front of the house. But golf, tennis, I enjoy it. I'm not great at it. I was a runner for a long time. I'm a walker now."

Morse studied criminal justice in college.

"It was the easiest major at LSU," she says. "I really wanted to be in the FBI, too. I watched too much television when I was a child. I thought it would be cool."

Instead, after graduation, she hit the law books at the University of Houston, focusing on labor and employment.

After a summer internship "power Xeroxing" for the high-powered Baker Botts law firm in Houston, she unexpectedly landed her first full-time job with high-flying Vinson & Elkins.

"My dad burst into tears," she says. "I don't know if it was happiness or complete shock. It's good to exceed people's expectations."

Just three years into this stint, yet another global law firm, Fulbright & Jaworksi, lured her to Austin.

"We love the out of doors," she says of husband Kevin Morse, a lawyer with the Travis County Attorney's Office. "We thought Austin would be so great."

Morse didn't yet know the city's business culture.

"In Houston, it was all oil and gas," she remembers. "Then I moved here, and it was all semiconductors. My first day, I was at lunch with my boss and tried to impress him, saying ‘I thought they killed that semiconductor project in Waxahachie.' ‘That was a supercollider.' I've done penance in the semiconductor field since then."

Morse was soon snatched up by Applied Materials, then Motorola before joining Samsung in 2007. There, following in the footsteps of Bill Cryer, she serves as the public face of Samsung Austin.

While her career followed a steadily upward trajectory, not all in her family life was as sunny. Sixteen years ago, her younger son, Robbie, was injured while in the care of a nanny. A public case followed. Now Robbie, ambulatory but not verbal, lives with profound special needs.

"We talk about our lives before and after," Morse says. "At first we didn't know if he was going to live. I had no clue that his needs would be as profound as they are. But we found a deeper meaning of life. It opened up our eyes."

Seeing children with even greater needs, the Morses stopped feeling sorry for themselves.

"I don't have any problems," she recalls thinking. "We've got to roll up our sleeves and get involved."

It was then that her work with nonprofits, such as Goodwill Industries and Any Baby Can, took on special meaning.

"Part of it was Robbie," she says. "Part of it was what's expected at law firms. But at our core we have been focused on the marginalized."

So many groups ask Samsung for donations, Morse must keep that focus in sharp resolution.

Yet the impulse never goes away: "You want to sit down with everybody and hear their story."

Contact Michael Barnes at mbarnes@statesman.com