Holyoke mayor’s brother dies of overdose

  • Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, right, stands beside his brother, Douglas Morse, during a campaign launch party at Unicorn Inn in Holyoke, July 22, where the mayor announced his challenge to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, for his seat in the 1st Congressional District. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/26/2020 7:47:18 PM

HOLYOKE — On Monday, Mayor Alex Morse and his family got the devastating call that too many in the region have also received: They had lost a loved one to addiction.

Douglas “Doug” Morse, the mayor’s older brother, had been found dead of a drug overdose after years of struggling with heroin addiction. He was 40 years old.

“With his passing, he’s become yet another reminder of the deadliness of this disease and the need for greater access to effective and compassionate treatment,” Morse said in a Facebook post that drew reaction from across the city and beyond. “I share this because we’ve lost too many people and it's important that we never stop shining light on this epidemic.”

In a phone interview Tuesday, Morse described his brother as someone who could be shy and reserved, but around family and friends loved to make people laugh. 

“He brought joy to any space he was in,” Morse said. “He just took so much joy in being around family and friends, his son and nieces and nephews.”

Morse said his brother, who was a member of the undefeated 1997 Holyoke High School football team, could often be seen on the sidelines of his 10-year-old son Gavin’s sports games.

“That was his greatest joy in his life, his son,” Morse said.

But Doug also suffered from addiction — a disease Morse said his brother battled probably since he was 19. He was in and out of recovery, legal trouble and at times jail throughout his adult life, working in construction and other manual labor as he walked the tough road to recovery. 

Doug had gotten clean before, and Morse said he had a dream of one day becoming a recovery coach or specialist to help others facing similar struggles.

“He’s made so many relationships — friends, mentors and mentees — from being in the recovery community, helping people out,” Morse said. He said that over the years, he has often run into people who were in recovery with Doug. “They just remarked about what a good person he is, how kind he is and proud he is of his family.”

His brother had a significant impact on his life, Morse said, including some of the policies he has pursued as an elected official. One of his first acts as Holyoke mayor was to establish a needle exchange program — an act supported by public health experts but criticized by others, including elected officials.

Morse said he supports the creation of safe injection sites and a broader reform of drug policy in the country, which he said currently places people struggling with addiction in jail cells where they have “no business sitting.”

Morse said that navigating the process of recovery with his brother over the years — bringing him to detox programs and helping coordinate housing afterward, for example — has made him acutely aware of the gaps in the health care system. He said our current system makes it “incredibly difficult” for people who are already stigmatized for their disease to get treatment.

“We need to be treating it like the disease it is and having a health care system where health care is a human right,” said Morse, who is a supporter of Medicare for All.

Morse said his brother struggled to find housing at times after leaving treatment programs. He said insurance only covers a certain number of days in a halfway house, so people leaving detox can fall through the cracks and wind up without housing. He said Doug was living in Pittsfield after his family had tried to get him a detox bed in the Springfield area but couldn’t find one.

“Overall, this is indicative of the failings of our health care system,” he said. “Why is there one standard and system for people who have means and another for people who don’t? This disease certainly doesn’t discriminate.”

Morse said that over the years, he and his brother grew closer. He said that early in his mayoral tenure, his brother’s run-ins with the law made headlines. Morse said he never wanted his brother to feel “less than” because of his struggles, and that he has always tried to push back against the stigma that surrounds addiction.

Doug Morse had joined his brother in recent years on the campaign trail, including just two weeks ago in Pittsfield, where Morse was meeting with voters in his bid for the U.S. House in the 1st Congressional District. Morse said his brother shared his story of recovery with those gathered.

“He’s more than his illness,” Morse said. “I think he’ll be defined by the way that he made people feel and the joy he brought to people’s eyes — his laughter and smile and his enduring insistence to be a healthier person.”

Doug Morse is survived by his son, Gavin, father Tracey, his brothers Alex and Matt, his sister-in-law Jessica, nephew Nathan and niece Lauren. 

Calling hours will be held at Messier Funeral Home in Holyoke on Sunday, from 3 to 5 p.m. In lieu of flowers, the Morse family is requesting donations be made to the peer-led recovery support center Hope for Holyoke.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

This article has been republished to correct the date and time of the calling hours.


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