June 26, 2011

Summit Lane teacher Ben Murphy was a very special person, mentor and role model whose life ended tragically

Click on class photo to enlarge

1956-57 Summit Lane School, Mr. B. Murphy's sixth grade class

First row: Marilyn Monsrud, Tyler Asdorian, Peter Barnett

Second row: Noreen Donlin, the late Bob Benn, Leslie Wohl, Judy Lewis

Third row: Aaron Gurwitz, John McCormick, Leslie Wohl, Brian Williams, Joanne Leib

Fourth row: Darrae Cabre, Richie Ligouri, Kathy Stahlman, Bob Leporati, Jeff Harriton

Back row: Charlie Kawada, x, x, Mr. Ben Murphy, David Lounsberry, Ricky Hofer


I was privileged to be in Mr. B. Murphy's class from Sept. 1955 through June 1957, 5th and 6th grades at Summit Lane, You had to say Mr. "B" Murphy, because there was also Mr. "H" Murphy. The initial B was for Ben.

Our Mr. Murphy was a gifted and caring teacher. Everybody I've talked to, especially in our class which had him for two years, said he made them feel special. Because he became such an influence in my life, it took a long time for me to realize that he was only 29 years old when I met him.

We knew a lot about him, because, like most Irishmen (he was a Brooklyn Irishman), he loved to talk. He had left high school a few months before graduation, lied about his age and entered WW II as a Seabee in 1944. He spoke often of his war experiences, but never with any horror or bitterness. He told of his time working as a reporter on the Daily News, while he went to college on the G.I. Bill.

His reporting experience led to his making writing the centerpiece of his teaching. He taught me, and many others, how to write. Mr. Murphy held an annual year-long writing contest, encouraging us to turn in stories whenever we wished. He would often read these aloud to the class. I learned to love and value good writing, and in 5th grade I won that year's contest. My best friend, Jo Ann Leib, won it in the 6th grade.

He often read to us, sometimes from his own short stories (he always aspired to be a writer himself), other times from his favorite authors. I remember Jack London, Jo Ann remembers Samuel Beckett, my sister Elaine remembers Noam Chomsky. His interests were huge and varied: politics, music (his wife was a Julliard-trained opera singer, and he loved Puccini), the visual arts, public speaking, debating, math and science, sports, and especially other cultures and people.

I have always felt that he formed my moral conscience, even more than did my parents or my church. It was from him I first learned of civil rights issues and the history of discrimination in this country. He was a patriot who believed we had to live up to the promises of our Founding Fathers.

Two of my younger sisters also had Mr. Murphy. My sister Chris, a year younger, said "He had rules but he wasn't strict." I remember his saying "To abuse a privilege is to lose a privilege." She was also impressed that he had put extra credit projects on the bulletin board to "encourage us to go as far as we could." My sister Elaine, 4 years younger said "I knew that I was in the presence of greatness. He seemed to be quite a scholar and intellectual."

Many of my former classmates have shared memories of him: "He was always fair and he loved all sports" said Richie Liguori, who, along with Bobby Leporati, credited Mr. Murphy with their choices of careers as middle school teachers. Leslie Wohl Day, also a middle school teacher, said "He was always so kind to everyone and that was a role model for me." Marilyn Monsrud Frese said "It was exciting to come to school every day - you never knew what he had planned."

Mr. Murphy was a role model for me in other ways. He talked about his wife and children with great love and admiration. I could tell his marriage was truly a partnership, and that he respected as well as loved his wife. He loved life and people. Jo Ann and I, and perhaps others, were mentored by him for years. Following 6th grade, we would walk across the field from DAHS after school and sit on the old desks, chatting with him. During that time, he helped each of us choose our paths through high school and college, supporting our girlhood friendship, yet noticing and appreciating our differences. From our discussions of current events and politics, it was clear that he lived his life according to his values and beliefs. He encouraged us to do the same.

In 1967, he set out to fulfill a dream of both his and his wife Terry's. The whole family, including four sons, aged 4-13, moved to La Paz, Bolivia for what was to be a two-year leave of absence, so he could teach at the American Cooperative School. It was to be a great adventure and was just that, according to his family, until March of the following year. He suddenly came down with severe food poisoning. The family left for home and Terry had him admitted to the VA Hospital in Brooklyn. Despite the efforts of American medicine, his illness overwhelmed his body.

At this time, one of our former classmates, 22-year old medical student Charlie Kawada, learned of his illness and came to the hospital. "I just had to tell him how important he was to me, that he had been the most influential teacher I'd ever had." He died the day before his 42nd birthday, leaving not only his family in grief, but his shocked colleagues, students and friends as well.

Never able to get Mr. Murphy out of my mind, in 2007 I was able to meet Terry and their sons, now in their 40s and 50s. I learned more about him as a person, and they learned about him as a teacher and mentor from me. Ken, his second son, has spent his career as a public school teacher and currently works for the East Meadow schools. He was thrilled and amazed to learn that in 1956 his father's activities in the Levittown Education Association were deemed a "plus" sign in a letter of recommendation for tenure by then principal Andrew Donnelly. "My Dad got praised for his union work by his principal," said an incredulous Ken, an avid teacher's union member. I said I doubted the LEA was anything but a "professional organization" at that time.

What I gained the most from my time with this wonderful man was the conviction that all people, regardless of their backgrounds, are to be valued and learned from. He lived this belief out and his life was the greatest lesson he taught.


Anonymous said...

wonderful piece. i wish i had known him.

Susan Weldon, class of 1960

Anonymous said...

Kathy has said it all so elegantly.Mr.Murphy was and remains an inspirational figure for all of us who were his students .This, I imagine, is true as well for all of those who knew him.
As for myself,Mr.Murphy is the reason I became a teacher.There was so much to his teaching style that I stole. There was so much to his approach with students that I tried to emulate.
He was a man's man ,but a complete man.He loved literature,the arts,and sports as well.Most importantly he loved critical thinking and expression.It is here where his greatest contribution comes.He taught us how to think.He taught us to want to think well.At the same time he treated each child as a special individual.
If my memory serves I was the worst behaved kid in the class and the most ignorant.It didn't matter.He treated me as if I were his son.You could not help but respect and admire him.
Over the years I always evaluated my performance as a teacher by asking a simple question," Would Mr.Murphy approve?"
When I looked at the picture of our class of 1957,I could still name every kid by first and last name,real easy!It was a great time in our lives.We were a great group of kids who were guided by a truly great teacher and man - Mr.Ben Murphy.

Richie Liguori
class of 1963

schecro said...

I'm DAHS Class of '68, and Ben Murphy was the best teacher I ever had (sorry Mr Bloom and Mr Levy) -- including college and law school. I recall his stories about WWII and his being a reporter. As others had noted he taught me howq rowdies -- and to think. I stayed in touch with Mr Murphy when he went to S America and I went to Division. I still have a letter he sent me from that time. I'll never forget when Mr Aaron --music teacher who was at Summit Lane and then at Division-- told me that Mr Murphy had died. I was on hall patrol outside the auditorium. Mr. Mruphy was a man who changed people's lives, including mine. Can't say more about a person than that. Ron Schechter

schecro said...

Should be " he taught me how to write." Darn auto-correct. Ron

Avrum Rosen said...

This is a beautiful tribute. Mr. Murphy was that inspirational teacher for me that I often find myself thinking about. I remember him reading "The Last House" to us by Ray Bradbury. A whole new world of literature was opened up to me, as well as the harsh realities of the atomic bomb. He required us to read the newspaper every day. A habit that stayed with me.

I remember him teaching us how we are manipulated by advertising, and his great stories of writing obits. He would show us presents he bought for his kids (I seem to remember a pair of pajamas). I remember going outside for class and for creative writing. It was great to learn that one of his kids became a teacher as well.