A Life: Robert D. Murray; ‘He never took a summer off’

By NORA DOYLE-BURR

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-13-2023 12:52 PM

SOUTH STRAFFORD — Robert Murray had a gruff communication style, but everyone at The Newton School, where he served as principal for 28 years, and in the community, where he served in numerous volunteer roles, recognized that he cared.

Joey Hawkins, who worked as a middle school teacher at The Newton School for 30 years starting in 1983, recalled a middle school production of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Murray, who served as the South Strafford school’s principal from 1965-1993, didn’t direct the productions but was supportive of them, Hawkins said.

In Hawkins’ recollection, Murray said, “You can’t really do Tom Sawyer without a raft.”

She replied, “You’re right.”

And Murray said, “Alright, I’ll make a raft,” as if she’d twisted his arm.

He got to work in what was then a bus garage on school grounds and enlisted some of the students in the raft’s creation. It allowed the characters to “make this grand entrance on the raft,” Hawkins said. “That was very Mr. Murray.”

Taking on such tasks as a matter of course was Murray’s way. Murray, who died at the age of 87 of COVID-19 complications on Dec. 17 at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, also taught middle school science and math, coached children’s baseball and basketball teams, served on the town’s fire department, mowed the town’s ball fields in the summer and served on the town’s cemetery commission.

“It was odd in a way” to have his dad as his school principal and teacher, Mike Murray, who graduated from The Newton School, which was then K-8, in 1973, said, but “it also seemed pretty normal in that sort of community where everybody knew each other anyway.”

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Murray, the youngest son of George and Anna (Nichols) Murray, was born in the neighboring town of Tunbridge on the family farm on June 12, 1935.

Rhett Emerson, a former student of Murray’s, spent a day last summer with Murray and fellow longtime Strafford resident John Freitag driving around the area of Tunbridge where Murray grew up. Murray pointed out places where he and his father had shot deer when he was young.

“He was acting as kind of a guide, saying, ‘Oh, this road used to come over this way a little bit,’ ” Emerson said. “… Mr. Murray, he was from a bygone era as a teacher and even as a Strafford icon.”

Though Murray was small in stature at 5-foot-6, he was athletic and played catcher on South Royalton High School’s baseball team, which ran up a 20-game winning streak. At one point, he even went to a regional tryout for the then-Brooklyn Dodgers.

After graduating from high school in 1953, he and his brother, George, built and ran Sandy’s, a drive-in diner along Route 14 in Sharon. He later served for two years in the Army during the Korean War as a high-speed radio operator stationed in Okinawa, Japan. That stint, which involved training Chinese spies to use radios and radio codes, was the only time he lived outside his home state, his son said.

A couple years after returning to Vermont, in 1958, he and Barbara Mobus, of South Strafford, married. Mike was born the following year. The family moved to Lyndonville, Vt., where Murray attended what was then Lyndon State College, through a G.I. Bill, and served as captain of the baseball team. The Murrays welcomed their daughter, Jody, in 1961. The family lived in a three-room apartment and got around in a Morris 850 with 10-inch tires.

“We had kind of a busy life up there,” Barbara Murray said.

After Murray graduated with a bachelor of science degree in elementary education in 1963, the family returned to the White River Valley. Murray first taught math at Tunbridge Elementary School before taking the job at The Newton School.

They lived in the South Strafford home where Barbara, who served as the longtime secretary at The Newton School, grew up. The home sits across the street from Coburns’ General Store and a short walk from the school. Melvin Coburn, whose family owns the store, said that Murray was a founding member of the Strafford Lions Club, which honored Murray as its citizen of the year in 2006.

At the event celebrating Murray’s award, Coburn said it was mentioned, that Murray “hadn’t taken his wife very far over the years.”

Coburn, who saw Murray daily when he came to get a newspaper and pick up his mail at the post office inside the store, also enjoyed teasing Murray about his love for the St. Louis Cardinals.

“Nobody else in town, I don’t think, is a Cardinal fan,” Coburn, a Dodgers fan, said.

Another joke came out of the time Murray’s lawn mower broke and he borrowed one from Coburn.

“Mine, when you backed up, the brakes wouldn’t work very well,” Coburn said.

Murray took it to mow a lawn that sat near a pond and he accidentally backed into the water. Once Murray’s mower had been repaired, Coburn gave him a stop sign to put on the back.

“We picked on him a lot and had a lot of fun with him over the years,” Coburn said.

Jody Murray was Murray’s first employee in his summer lawn mowing business, she said. He taught her how to mow a lawn and how to gas up a tractor.

“My dad, God bless him, he never took a summer off,” Jody Murray said. “He was 100% committed to everything he did. Whether it was being a principal of a school or mowing a lawn, being on the cemetery committee … He was 100%, and there were no shortcuts.”

The town named the South Strafford athletic field in his honor in 1993. He mowed the fields and he also spent a good deal of time on them, playing catcher for a community team as a younger man and later coaching Little League. He, his children and grandchildren were all catchers.

Though Jody, who played softball, never played on a team that her father coached, he still taught her how to play catcher.

“He had a lot of advice,” Mike Murray said. “He was pretty good, from what I remember and what I hear.”

Watching Murray play baseball with a town team marked “the beginning of me admiring him, I guess,” said Punka Brown, who also had Murray as teacher, principal and basketball coach at The Newton School.

Brown remembered one World Series when the Cardinals were playing the Red Sox and Murray let them listen to the game at school.

“This is cool,” Brown said he remembers thinking at the time. “We’re in school, but he’s letting us listen to this World Series game. I think the Cardinals won, to his delight.”

Brown’s daughters also had Murray as their principal, and he tutored one in math. More recently, Brown and Murray served on the town’s cemetery commission together.

When Brown coached basketball at Thetford Academy for six years, he often turned to Murray for advice.

“I always liked getting his feed on things,” Brown said. “Him and Barbara were very supportive. Any game within 20 miles striking distance, he was always there — him and Barbara.”

When Murray was principal, Strafford children knew to go to his house when they wanted the key to the gym to play basketball.

“He’d give us the key and a stern stare,” Emerson said. They’d have to have the key back by 9.

While students knew they could go to Murray if they ever needed anything, they might instead opt to go to Barbara Murray in some cases.

“If you thought maybe you were going to get his stern glare, you might want to go her instead,” Emerson said.

In his later years, keeping tabs on former students was also something Murray did as a matter of course, Emerson said. He tracked their pursuits regardless of whether the students came from long-time Strafford families or if they were newer to the area.

“Of the 13 kids that were in my eighth grade class, Mr. Murray he knew where all those kids were and what they were up to, more or less,” Emerson said. It “didn’t matter if you saw him once a week or once every six months, you could just fall back into that relationship.”

Citing philosophical differences with the board, Murray retired from The Newton School in 1993.

“I think he really wanted to go back to really teaching kids,” Barbara Murray, who retired as The Newton School’s secretary in 2003, said.

He then worked for 10 years as a para-educator at Thetford Academy.

The role of principal evolved over the years Murray held the post in Strafford. The superintendent visited the school just a few times a year at the beginning, and there were no paraeducators or special educators, Barbara Murray said. The number of employees and the size of the school increased during Murray’s time. State regulations increasingly dictated how teachers ought to be teaching.

Murray was supportive of The Newton School’s teachers, giving them flexibility in how they delivered their lessons, while maintaining a fiscally conservative attitude, which Hawkins described as “watch the budget — that’s too expensive, we’re not going to buy that book.”

She said that came from “a long-time Vermonter tradition” of not spending money on unnecessary things, but, she added, “you do put in time into things that really matter.”

He wasn’t afraid to advocate for taxpayer spending if he felt it was important, however.

At a school meeting in March 1986, Murray explained his views to voters, as they were weighing an increase in teachers’ salaries, according to a Valley News story at the time: “You can do anything you want with the figures. You can toss them around any way you please. But let’s not forget the real issue here: the children. If you want a good education for the children, you have to pay for it. There’s no getting around that.”

A celebration of life is scheduled for the afternoon of June 4 on Murray Field in South Strafford.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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