Donald M. Murray, 1924-2006

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Donald M. Murray, 1924-2006  by Jane Harrigan

Don Murray '48 was an outsized presence in red suspenders, a big man with a big laugh who made a big impact in Durham and far beyond. He looked like Ernest Hemingway and handed out gifts like Santa Clauslittle luxuries to his friends and fat envelopes of writing advice to nearly everyone he met. When Murray, professor emeritus of English, died Dec. 30 at age 82, hundreds of writers had only to glance at the wall above their desks to recite his motto, Nulla dies sine linea—Never a day without a line. For decades he had distributed those words on laminated cards. Like seeds, the plastic mottoes sprouted, growing into a line of fans and friends that spanned the globe and connected disparate souls. There are many communities in Murray Nation, and all claim Don as their own.

The outsized man had an outsized resume, but to him, each item came with an asterisk. Yes, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, but don't dare call him a hero. Sure, he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1954, and yes, he was the youngest ever to do that. But it so happened, he'd say with perfect seriousness, that nobody good was competing that year. Yes, he started the journalism program at UNH, and he reveled in its graduates' achievements. But don't forget the lowly reason he returned to his alma mater in 1963: The student newspaper had published a vulgarity, and the administration wanted someone to set the kids straight.

Murray was thinking much bigger. He wanted students to love writing as he did, to see that it was hard work, not magic. Soon his philosophies and methods—emphasize the process; write alongside students; work together in individual conferences—had "shaped the teaching of writing in the English—speaking world," as the National Council of Teachers of English wrote for an event honoring Murray in 1997. (In his 2006 book Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark called Murray "perhaps the most influential writing teacher in the nation's history.") Books and more books—Learning by Teaching, Expecting the Unexpected, Writing to Deadline—marched from Murray's desk in Durham in a line nearly 30 titles long. In 1996, when the Poynter Institute compiled a bibliography of everything he'd written, friends said, "Wow! Look what you've accomplished!" Murray saw the list and said, "I should have done more."

After retiring from UNH in 1987, he kept writing, kept learning, kept up with technology. He and Tom Osenton '76 were about to launch a web site to share Murray's writing advice online. The line, that minimum daily requirement for the writing life, had come to mean not just a line of prose, but a computer connection, or a line of fiction or poetry—or a tree branch, sketched in his ever—present daybook as he waited, always early, to meet a friend.

Don is mourned by the breakfast crowd at Young's and the Bagelry. By his fellow Wildcat hockey fans. By the close to 700 people who crowded into Johnson Theatre on Jan. 27 for a service to celebrate his life. By composition scholars, who will honor him at their annual conference in March. By readers of his books and his Boston Globe column, "Now and Then." By the journalists he coached and by the journalists of tomorrow, who study in the Donald Murray Journalism Lab at UNH.

He is mourned by his daughters, Hannah Starobin '81 and Anne Nestelberger '75, and their husbands and Don's three grandchildren. The daughters know too much of mourning, having lost their sister, Lee, when she was 20, and more recently, their mother, Minnie Mae. The loyal guardian of the family, Minnie Mae came so fiercely to life in her husband's Boston Globe columns that the newspaper's readers responded to her death in 2005 as if she'd lived next door.

Don Murray had to write. He had to experience everything twice—once through living and again through writing. There's no such thing as writer's block, he'd say. Do truck drivers have truck driver's block? No, so shut up, put your rear in the chair, and write. When he died, his friends and followers wrote lines and lines. Here's a small sampling. Find the rest at

Jane Harrigan is a professor of journalism at UNH.

Kevin Sullivan '81Washington Post reporter, Pulitzer Prize winner: "Don Murray is the reason I am a journalist. Period. When I met him, I couldn't imagine anything more fun than being him. So I set out to follow in his footsteps, and it has been every bit as much fun as he promised."

Lou Ureneck '72, chair, journalism department, Boston University: "I learned basically one thing from him: There's joy in the work, and the harder you work, the fuller the joy."

Tom Newkirk, UNH professor of English: "As much as Don tried to describe his process of writing, it was its unexpectedness that truly fascinated him . . . . A writer could choose a word that would set off an unanticipated set of associations and lead to a digression, a new possibility, a new focus, perhaps to the true heart of what needs to be written."

John Christie '70, publisher, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel: "He believed in words and sentences and paragraphs and spoke of them so passionately that, as Yeats wrote of the great poets, 'One believed he had a sword upstairs.' 'I know writers,' he said. 'I am a writer. I'll write with you, and we'll both be writers.'"

Meg Heckman '01, reporter, Concord Monitor: "As a student at UNH, in a journalism lab bearing his name, I learned, per Don, that journalism is as simple——and hard——as these three things: You ask. You listen. You write."

Jon Kellogg '70, editor of the Waterbury (Conn.) Republican—American: "He helped me to learn how to think on my feet. He opened the joy of writing to me. He insisted, in whatever I was doing, that I get to the point."

Tom Osenton '76, adjunct professor of marketing and Don's housemate: "During the final months of his life, I would often find him sound asleep at the computer in his office——fully dressed in a bright shirt with ink stains on both pockets . . . . Startled, he'd wake up and almost always give the impression that he had just fallen asleep. 'I've done some good work on our project this morning,' he'd say, out of guilt for having catnapped for 10 minutes. He felt this overwhelming need to pull his weight in this life."

Lisa Miller '80, '88G, UNH associate professor of journalism: "I met so many people through Don; he loved bringing people together. He saw people in a way we couldn't quite see ourselves but wanted to. He treated students as writers, so they became writers. He touched people in a deep way by being able to see their best selves."

Don Murray '48, from his second—to—last "Now and Then" column in the Boston Globe (his last column was published three days after he died): "I have an obsession. I write. I draw. I try to capture a fragment of life and reveal its wonder to you. I never get it quite right, but there is a joy in the trying that makes me young. My New Year's wish for you, old and young, is that you find in the year ahead something you can't do."