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Journalism Student Remembers Don Murray

By Holly Young, Cooperative Extension
January 10, 2007

Getting the paper as I always do each morning from its tube at the end of our driveway, I stopped mid-track to make sure I’d read the headline right. Don Murray gone? How could that be? I started to cry. I wouldn’t see my teacher and mentor again.

Before I entered the University of New Hampshire, my mother, in her wisdom, had suggested I transform my love of writing into a journalism career. (She later told me my favorite word growing up was “why?” all the time – driving her to distraction.) And that’s exactly what I did.

I came to UNH in the fall of 1969 with expectations that grew in delight and amazement once I met Donald Murray. I may have had a passing interesting in journalism as a means to an end, but Don switched on what I came to think of as my “light bulb” the day I entered his classroom. It still glows.

It glows because I continue to look at how I’m going to craft a story with the instructions and information he imparted. He was such a good story-teller. I remember one writing practice he gave us: Remember something and write down at least 100 descriptions of it. I chose my Dad’s barn. I thought it was going to be easy. But I got up to about 30 and stumbled. What was I thinking – or not thinking? How could I reach 100 descriptions of a plain old red barn? Then, the “light bulb” turned on. What an amazing barn it turned out to be.

I still think about how to describe things – it used to be car wrecks, blazing infernos, human interest stories when I was working at The Portsmouth Herald. Don used to tell us, if you can’t draw the reader in, you haven’t succeeded. I wanted to succeed for him back in the classroom. I still do today.

And in the back of my head, always the question of why, as much as the who, what, when, where and sometimes how of things. He made sure that I continued my love affair with asking questions, and if you ask anyone around me today, they’d agree wholeheartedly. That’s the special gift Don Murray imparted to me: don’t lose track of the fun you can have when you’re writing.

I am still so proud of where Don’s teaching led me. Back when I was learning all the intricacies and nuances of writing here at UNH, I was able to do the first-ever UNH journalism internship at The Portsmouth Herald that resulted in an actual job. I still have the letter to prove it, I was so proud of that accomplishment.

The years passed, and I’d run into Don and he’d note that he’d been following my articles, always with a compliment. His comments and compliments were always heartfelt and I’d walk away thrilled that he’d noticed.

Then I came full circle, coming back to UNH to work for Cooperative Extension. I put my writing skills to work in new ways, always with those “murrayisms” I hope keep my writing fresh and vibrant. I had new stories to tell, and my love affair with storytelling continued.

The last time I saw Don Murray, he was at a favorite Thai restaurant my husband and I frequent. Always the gentleman, he stood when I went to say hello. It was always good to see him, to hear that voice. I’d comment on a recent “Now and Then” article he’d written (I read them religiously), but ever gracious, it was always about how I was doing, and my work.

I’ll miss opening the Boston Globe and looking for his columns, but as the days have passed since that initial shock, I’ve come to realize Don may be gone, but that “light bulb” he switched on in my mind is still shining, as it must shine for the hundreds of other writers who had the good fortune to study with him.

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