Foreward to the Donald Murray Memorial Program
Donald M. Murray, 1924-2006
This foreword to the program for Don Murray's memorial service, which drew more than 600 people to the Johnson Theater on campus on Jan. 27, 2007, was written by Tom Newkirk, Don's friend and fellow English professor.
Donald Murray's early life story seems molded from a Horatio Alger dime novel. His childhood in Quincy was often difficult and lonely, filled at an early age with adult responsibilities. One of these was caring for his invalid grandmother, an experience he unforgettably described in a later essay, “Waiting for the Sheets to Rise.” He dropped out of North Quincy High School at the age of 17 and for a time he served as a chauffeur for the Massachusetts Secretary of State. He entered the Army in the later part of World War II, serving as an MP, paratrooper, and as an infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge, a searing experience that he would write about for the rest of his life.
After graduating from the University of New Hampshire in 1948, he became a writer for the Boston Herald, winning the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1954 at the age of 29. He went on to a career as a freelance writer for the Saturday Evening Post, Reader's Digest, and other “slick” publications until he was hired by UNH in 1963 to teach journalism.
As a teacher, Don gave students great freedom in choosing topics; in writing conferences he pushed students to take control, to use their own inner critic to evaluate their work. Yet there was always the expectation for professionalism and high standards. He had no patience for romantic notions of “writer's block” and would sometimes remind us all that electricians didn't have “electrician's block.” Don had a special radar for students who had to struggle—women coming off tough divorces, bright working-class students with inadequate educations. He had a particular gift for reaching out to them, seeing potential that they themselves did not see.
Don's lifelong interest in the writing process led to innovations in the teaching of writing at the University of New Hampshire -- and his essays and textbooks changed writing instruction nationwide. In his landmark book A Writer Teaches Writing, he developed teaching strategies for engaging students in a recurring stages of writing—pre-writing, drafting, revision, and editing. He championed the one-on-one writing conference as the most effective means of teaching this process, and this approach remains a signature feature of writing instruction at UNH.
In his long retirement, Don kept contact with the university. He was a generous donor and an active fan of the hockey team—he was known for the loud bird calls he made when UNH scored a goal. He visited dozens of writing classes, often displaying his own writing process on the blackboard and leaving students with his email for further contact. And he held court with his breakfast group at Young's or the corner table at the Bagelry. He was such a generous source of UNH and town information that some of his friends once gave him a cap with “WDON” on it.
He will be long remembered for his extraordinary generosity of spirit. The door was always open—to his home, to his writing process, and in later life to the pain and joy of aging. All of us who entered must feel shock at it being finally closed, and gratitude for the gift he gave us.