Don Murray, Influential Boston Columnist, Dies at 82

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By: E&P Staff

Donald Murray, who won a Pulitzer for editorials for the Boston Herald and most recently wrote the “Now and Then” column for the Boston Globe, died Saturday at the age of 82.

He was also known as a book author and teacher.

His obit from the Boston Globe follows.


Five days ago, in his last “Now and Then” column published in the Globe before he died, Donald Murray was as in love with writing as he had been as a teenager — and just as anxious.

“Each time I sit down to write I don’t know if I can do it,” he wrote. “The flow of writing is always a surprise and a challenge. Click the computer on and I am 17 again, wanting to write and not knowing if I can.”

He could, and did, for decades — winning a Pulitzer Prize at 29 for editorials he wrote for the Boston Herald, teaching writing at the University of New Hampshire, publishing book after book, penning column after column.

“He basically lived through his writing,” said his daughter Anne. “In some ways that was more real to him than his real life. Everything had to be sifted through his writing — the good and bad. His whole life was writing.”

Mr. Murray, who lived in Durham, N.H., was visiting a friend in Beverly yesterday when he died, apparently of heart failure. At 82, he was about to launch a website where aspiring writers could apprentice with the aging master, extending his career from the days of typewriter carbon copies to cyberspace.

For two decades, Mr. Murray wrote the Globe’s “Over 60” column, which was renamed “Now and Then” in 2001. Ostensibly aimed at the retired and the elderly, the column drew in readers of all ages.

“You would think that his column would appeal almost exclusively to older readers, but I know so many younger readers who follow Don Murray and have to know what happened,” said Steve Greenlee, Living editor at the Globe and formerly Mr. Murray’s editor.

Effortlessly turning the personal, the private, and sometimes the painful parts of his life into universal experiences, Mr. Murray crafted columns in which the passing of his years became a narrative embraced by legions of loyal readers.

As his beloved wife, Minnie Mae, declined slowly from Parkinson’s disease, readers were with him as he savored their remaining years. Silently watching from the vantage of newsprint, they sat with Mr. Murray beside her bed in their home and later in the assisted living facility where she died in February 2005.

When he reflected on the changes wrought in his life after he suffered a heart attack in the mid-1980s, readers trembled at his fears and basked in his triumphs — one of which was simply living to write again, and again.

“I have achieved another generation,” he wrote in March 2001 when his column’s name changed. “I am no longer young-old, but at 76, old and looking forward to graduating to ancient in another 15 years. I had always thought the title of the column would be ‘Over 60’ until it could become ‘Over 100,’ but my editors suggest that I am so much over 60 that we should rename it.

“It will be called ‘Now and Then’ (Minnie Mae’s idea) and will allow me not only to report on the interior landscape of one who continues to ripen but also to comment on the external life with the perspective of an elder.”

Donald Morrison Murray was born in Boston and grew up in Quincy. He had no siblings and, characteristically frank, described his childhood as unhappy.

“My parents and teachers got together and decided I was stupid,” he wrote last year. “My response was to develop a private mantra: ‘I’m stupid but I can come in early and stay late.’ Surprise. It worked. Good work habits will beat talent every time.”

Mr. Murray was a paratrooper during World War II and married Ellen Pinkham in 1946. Their marriage ended in divorce and he graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1948 with a bachelor’s degree in English. He went to work as a copyboy at the Herald and became a staff reporter in 1949.

Two years later he turned to editorial writing and married Minnie Mae Emmerich, who “was five years older than I was, an embarrassment her mother never accepted,” he wrote this year.

Mr. Murray was awarded a Pulitzer in 1954 for editorials “on the ‘New Look’ in National Defense which won wide attention for their analysis of changes in American military policy,” according to the Pulitzer website.

Turning down an offer to become an editor, Mr. Murray continued to write and started teaching college writing courses, then moved to New York City, where he worked briefly for Time magazine. He became a freelance writer in 1956, a tenuous existence for someone supporting a family. He began publishing books and joined the University of New Hampshire faculty in 1963, becoming professor emeritus in 1984.

The university awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1990. Earlier, in 1981, he won the Yankee Quill Award, awarded by the New England Society of Newspaper Editors and the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

As a writing coach, Mr. Murray was revered as he brought his plainspoken message to classrooms and newsrooms.

“What Don did was take the mystique and myth out of writing for so many in newsrooms and elsewhere who thought you just had to wait for inspiration to come,” said Chip Scanlan, who teaches writing at the Poynter Institute and was working for The Providence Journal when he met Mr. Murray. “He did this with a simple but powerful message: Good writing may be magical, but it’s not magic. It’s a process, a rational series of steps and decisions that all writers take.”

“He said those words and they galvanized me,” Scanlan said. “I think I know what it’s like to be an apostle, because I’ve been quoting and teaching Don Murray ever since that day.”

For Mr. Murray, each column, each sentence presented an opportunity to teach, and writing was never the only lesson. One of his many books, “The Lively Shadow,” was about his middle daughter, Lee, who died at 20.

“We don’t get over the death of those we love,” he wrote in a 1999 column. “Don’t tell those who have suffered such a loss to get over it. Think how terrible it would be if we could forget.”

In addition to his daughter Anne, who lives in Weymouth, Mr. Murray leaves another daughter, Hannah Starobin of Mount Kisco, N.Y.; two grandsons; and a granddaughter.

A funeral service will be announced.

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