A Life, Shared
Donald M. Murray, 1924-2006

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.

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