Harrison mourns the loss of beloved Morillo

Photo courtesy Jenny King The late Jose Morillo (l.) and wife Amy Nicosia Morillo shared this moment recently in a Lyndhurst park with son Constantino and daughter Maya. Jose Morillo died last week after collapsing in his home. He was 32 years old.
Photo courtesy Jenny King
The late Jose Morillo (l.) and wife Amy Nicosia Morillo shared this moment
recently in a Lyndhurst park with son Constantino and daughter Maya. Jose
Morillo died last week after collapsing in his home. He was 32 years old.

Amy Nicosia Morillo vividly recalls the day that she met her husband- to-be, Jose, a little more than seven years ago.

The Washington School teacher had just organized a dinner for parents and children at La Fiamma Restaurant and Bar to finish the school year.

Jose Morillo just happened to be serving the dinner at La Fiamma, where his cousin had worked.

Amy’s friend, Patty Gerris, called Amy and said that she had to come to the restaurant for an important reason.

“She said your husband is here,” Nicosia Morillo recalled. “So blow dry your hair and get over here.”

Jose Morillo, a native of the Dominican Republic, had come to the United States to play college baseball with the hope of eventually becoming a professional. He was attending a Christian college in Alabama called Faulkner University and was playing baseball there, but came to Harrison to stay with family for the summer, to work and earn some money. “

He just kept bringing me plates,” Nicosia Morillo said. “He kept talking to me.”

So when the dinner was over and everyone went upstairs to the bar, Amy stayed downstairs to help Jose clean up.

“I helped him,” said Amy, a native Harrisonian who played basketball and softball at Harrison High and later became a boys’ basketball coach and a girls’ softball coach. “We talked. We had fun. He asked for my phone number.”

On their first date, they went to the Lyndhurst batting cages together. On their second date, they played catch. On the third date, it was back to the batting cages. You can sense where Jose’s mind was at during those days.

“But I was already head over heels,” Amy said. “Patty Gerris was right. He was my husband.”

The two became inseparable that summer, so much so that Jose Morillo eventually moved in with the Nicosia family on Warren St. before heading back to Alabama and school later that summer.

“The next spring “The next spring break, we drove down to Alabama,” Amy said. “My dad (“Big Jack” Nicosia) had bought the engagement ring, but told Jose he had to pay him back. My parents loved him. Eventually, Jose paid Dad back.”

Jose Morillo had dreams of being a pro baseball player like so many others from his native Dominican Republic had become: people like Pedro Martinez, whom Jose knew, and Carlos Pena, a close childhood friend of Morillo who eventually became an American League All-Star with the Tampa Bay Rays.

“He was a very good baseball player,” Amy said. “He played on some very good teams in the Dominican Republic. Baseball was it for him.”

Morillo came to the United States via the coaches at the County College of Morris, where he played one year. He then went to Macomb Community College in Michigan, with the hope of getting drafted. He earned All-America status at Macomb and transferred to Faulkner.

“He had a tryout with the Detroit Tigers, but nothing ever materialized from it,” Amy said. “Things could have gone differently.”

Amy and Jose eventually married and settled in the Nicosia home in Harrison. It didn’t take long for Jose Morillo to become so totally adopted by his new home town.

“He’s a Harrisonian,” Amy said. “He tells people that all the time. I think it was his personality that made everyone like him. He was humble. He had one pair of shoes and three pairs of pants. He never took anything for granted.”

Jose Morillo also loved baseball and wanted so much to teach and coach the sport he loved to the youngsters in his new home. So Morillo was a volunteer Little League coach and helped out with the Harrison High School varsity squad, especially helping a player like Emil Zorilla become a better catcher.

“He just felt so comfortable being with kids,” Amy Morillo said. “He wanted to help with the Little League and with the high school. He was never looking for money. He just loved being around them.”

Morillo worked his way up the ladder with the Wakefern Food Corporation, starting as an employee who lifted pallets of produce to eventually becoming a supervisor.

Amy and Jose Morillo welcomed two children of their own, son Constantino (age 4) and daughter Maya (age 2). Once the children were born, Jose Morillo was happiest when he was with his own kids, pushing the stroller around Harrison.

“He could have gone out with his friends, but he would much rather stay home with me and the kids,” Amy said.

Jose Morillo was taking classes at Hudson County Community College to try to better himself in the Wakefern family. Last Tuesday night, Morillo, just named two days earlier as the Dominican Man of the Year at the Dominican Day Parade in Harrison, came home and sat in a recliner in their home.

“He was in perfect health,” Amy Morillo said. “He never had a complaint in the world. He was always happy. He never complained about a thing.”

But last Tuesday, Morillo collapsed and motioned that he was having trouble swallowing. He was rushed to St. Michael’s Hospital and eventually University Hospital, where he died last Friday night. Jose Morillo, hardworking devoted husband and beloved father of two, was gone at the tender age of 32.

News of Morillo’s untimely and tragic death has sent shockwaves through the small close-knit town of Harrison. Whenever someone in Harrison is in trouble, the rest of the town instantly rallies. The bond that Harrison has with its residents is beyond comprehension.

For example, when Hurricane Sandy flooded out the Nicosia-Morillo home, several town residents got together to help the family clean up the mess and get by.

“There were so many people here to help and Jose never forgot it,” Amy Morillo said. “He was always so happy to be with all the people of Harrison.”

It was more of the same last week – but with this utter feeling of helpless despair. How could such a thing happen to Jose? Of all people, why him?

“He’s the nicest person I’ve ever known,” said Kim Mc- Donough Huaranga, the Harrison High athletic director and Amy’s best friend since they were toddlers. “Although we only had him for a short time, I’m grateful to have had him. He’s going to be a presence for all of our lives.”

McDonough and Nicosia were basketball teammates at Harrison High, two of the all-time great athletes. McDonough is still the school’s all-time scoring leader for both boys and girls. Nicosia was there for most of those 2,700-plus points. Inseparable is not a good enough word to describe the two.

“She’s my sister,” Kim Huaranga said. “We’re sisters.”

Huaranga’s husband, Alfredo, became best of friends with Jose. Here was a Dominican buddying up with a native of Nicaragua.

“He was always so positive,’ Alfredo Huaranga said. “He always brightened my day. If I was down, he brought me back to earth. He was just a wonderful man who always lived life to the fullest. He loved being Dominican, but he embraced being an American, embraced the culture and the American ways.”

Two years ago, Jose Morillo became a naturalized American citizen.

“He was the kind of guy who would do anything for you,” said close friend Nick Landy, the Harrison head volleyball coach. “He never said a bad word about anyone. He was just so full of life and cared about so many people. It was amazing how quickly he was accepted and became a part of the Harrison family. He was just one of the guys. It really didn’t take much for people to love him. I was always so fortunate to spend time with him.”

Legendary Harrison girls’ basketball coach and former athletic director Jack Rodgers was also close to Amy and Jose and recently spent two weeks together at the Jersey Shore.

“In fairness, as I get older, I notice that God takes the good people early,” Rodgers said. “I got to see Jose as a father a lot this summer. He was just so pleasant with everyone. He’s a man who brought such joy to the earth. He was just a wonderful man and a wonderful father.”

The outpouring of love and support has been endless. There are thousands of posts on Facebook.

“A lot come from people I don’t even know,” Amy said. “I don’t have the time to answer them all.”

But Amy has read them all. She didn’t need confirmation that her husband was a saint on this planet. She knew that already. But the words coming from others just give her reassurance.

“It’s really amazing,” Amy Morillo said. “There have been so many people who have come here with food and it hasn’t stopped.”

Kim Huaranga, whom Jose affectionately called “Sugarberry,” because of a bizarre paint color Kim chose to paint the walls of her home, recalled her friend fondly.

“By just looking at him, he could light up a room with his joy,” Kim Huaranga said. “His happy face could turn everyone’s day from sadness to happiness. He was such a good person and his soul was so good that maybe he was just ready for the next phase. Who knows?”

There are no answers. When someone is killed in a tragic automobile accident, there is sadness, sure, but there’s a reason. Jose Morillo was as healthy as a horse last week, an active softball player still with his buddies from the PourHouse softball team, a great father and loving husband who was so totally beloved by everyone. Just like that, he’s gone at 32. It makes no sense whatsoever.

“No one has the answer,” Amy said. “I can’t find the words. I don’t even know what to say. I’m at a loss.”

But Amy Nicosia Morillo, summoning strength from somewhere, found the words to best describe the man she instantly fell in love with while cleaning up after a Harrison party.

“He loved his family,” Morillo said. “He loved his friends. He loved life. He loved making people happy. He always tried to do the right thing. He was the last man standing with morals and values. He broke a lot of barriers and changed a lot of people’s lives about race, about background. He made people love him.”

She summed it up best – and it was the sentiment of hundreds of Harrisonians like Jose Morillo.

“I was so lucky to have found him,” Amy Nicosia Morillo said. “You have no idea how lucky I was.”

We were all lucky. And now, we mourn the loss of a great young man gone way too soon.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by the Mulligan Funeral Home in Harrison.

Learn more about the writer ...

Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”