A gift for a gift
Dr. Avon Murphy's English endowment stems from "roots of friendship"
By Phyllis Shier, College of Liberal Arts
For the past few years, Dr. Avon Murphy (M.A. '67, English) has been building his legacy at WSU. It started even before he knew it, with a single $1,000 gift to the Department of English in 2006.
"I didn't have the idea of the endowment then," Murphy said. "I just did it to see how it would feel, and it felt pretty good."
The good feeling from that gift led to the establishment of and the first installment to the Avon J. Murphy Endowed Graduate Fellowship in English in 2007. The fund became fully realized this past January.
Murphy decided to create the fund for several reasons, but most importantly, he said, he wanted to give back to the university that has given so much to him both professionally and personally.
Love at first sight
Driving from Oregon City, Oregon, to campus through desert-like conditions with his parents and sister in the summer of 1965, Murphy wasn't sure WSU was the right choice for him. That changed when the car came over the hill into Pullman and he caught sight of Bryan Tower.
"I thought, 'Wow. That is something!'" he said. "That was my very first sight of the campus, and it's still a good sight."
Things stayed on an upward trajectory that first year when he met business administration student Virginia "Gini" Lewis, whom he later married. By his second year on campus, he was taking the long walk every night from Ferry Hall to her apartment on Maple Street and back again. He proposed to Gini on a drive between campus and Oregon City to visit his family.
It wasn't formal, Murphy recalls. "What do you think?" he asked his future bride about marriage. "Yeah, sure," she said. "Okay," he replied.
The Murphys have two sons, Patrick (B.M. '94, with teaching certificate) and Craig (B.A. '98, communication). Both met their future wives at WSU as well.
Patrick, a music professor at the University of Portland, married fellow student Susan Dollinger (B.S. '94, psychology; B.A. '94, business administration). They return to campus for visits often, Murphy said, still having friends in the area.
Craig, editor of the Springfield Times near Eugene, Oregon, proposed to Julie Woods (B.S. '98, zoology) on bended knee at the old Ferry Hall cupola, then in residence outside Murrow Hall (it has since been moved to the arboretum on the east side of campus). A dedicated Coug, Craig carries the WSU flag to rival campuses during WSU football away games.
It's no wonder the family treasures visits to the campus that inspired such enduring relationships.
"It's not a fluke," Murphy said of the pivotal role WSU has played in his family's most important moments.
WSU academics: Learning from the best
Like many students, Murphy said he has fond memories of discussions with WSU professors who taught by example the importance of intellectual curiosity, creativity, and scholarly integrity.
Among his favorites was Murray Markland, "the quintessential English professor with the civilized voice and very civilized demeanor" who taught medieval literature.
"He looked like the well-heeled English professor that you always wanted to be," Murphy said.
Then there was John Ehrstine, who taught British Romantic and Anglo-Saxon literature.
"He was very enthusiastic," said Murphy. "I really liked his teaching style."
Paul Stewart in history not only impressed him as a teacher but became a good friend as well.
"I liked his way of approaching history," said Murphy.
Two successful careers
From WSU, Murphy earned a doctorate in English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, which led to a career as an English professor specializing in technical writing. After 19 years of teaching, Murphy left academia for a career as a technical editor and writer, practicing where his heart was.
He worked for years as a technical writer at the state legislative service center in Olympia and then took a contract position with Microsoft as senior editor, writing manuals, creating websites, and helping with the online system.
The first day on that job he accidently parked in Bill Gates's parking space and was told he'd have to move by staff guards who'd seen the gaffe through the security camera.
"I never did meet the man himself, but I know exactly where he parked," Murphy said of Gates.
Murphy's life's work has been based on a commitment to professional leadership, hard work, and the obligation to contribute his best efforts to English studies.
"A lot of what I've edited or written has been for the commercial trade, but I always go back to the humanities and history when I'm writing my books," he said of the intellectual skills he draws on. Those skills, he said, were taught to him by WSU faculty.
Creating the endowment
In 2003, after 36 years of marriage, Gini died of breast cancer. During the last year and a half of her life, Murphy retired from his full-time job in Redmond, a two-hour commute each way from their home in Lacey, to care for her.
After her death, he began to reassess his life and his "place in the great scheme of things."
"I wanted to see what I could do for people," he said.
When he decided to create the endowment at WSU, he had been working on his own for many years, having established Murphy Editing and Writing Services.
One of his contracts was with the Society for Technical Communication (STC), the largest and oldest professional association for technical communicators. As the book review editor of their quarterly journal Technical Communication, Murphy decided to use the proceeds from that contract to make annual $5,000 contributions to the WSU Foundation for the fund, with additional $1,000 annual gifts so awards could be made while the endowment grew.
Murphy gave up the STC contract in January, when the endowment was finalized. He's content now to be a retired STC fellow.
"The last six years, every bit of those earnings has gone directly into the fund," he said.
Surprise support from friends
Caring by nature, Murphy is proud of the personal relationships he has maintained throughout his lifetime. Still, he never expected his contract with STC to produce more than his own support for the endowment.
At STC's annual conference in May, however, Murphy's colleagues from Technical Communication surprised him with a gift of more than $1,800 to his WSU endowment.
"I thought, 'Okay, here comes a Kindle for sure,'" Murphy said of the surprise that awaited him at the book reviewers' breakfast.
When book reviewer Charles Crawley, a longtime friend, instead read a card announcing the donation, "my jaw fell down to the table I was standing in front of," Murphy said.
"Avon has been a wonderful mentor, friend, and professional," Crawley said of the gift he and colleagues gave to Murphy. "It's a pleasure to donate to his endowment to further the needs of technical communication professionals."
Enjoying the impact of his fund
Murphy returns to WSU each spring to attend the ceremony where the Avon J. Murphy Endowed Graduate Fellowship in English provides a $1,000 prize to a deserving student.
To be considered, a student must demonstrate academic merit, leadership, and creativity and hold promise for future achievement in the field. Grades are also a factor, but the most important criteria are creativity and intellectual curiosity.
So far six fellowships have been awarded, and Murphy has been there for five of them, having missed the 2011 ceremony because of the STC conference.
"It's really fine," he said of attending the event and meeting the awardees. "We sit down and have a nice long conversation. We share a meal, and I'm able to hear what their aspirations are."
Murphy hasn't gotten out of the technical editing business altogether. He still owns Murphy Editing and Writing Services, specializing in articles and books on computer technologies and in the development and editing of websites. He recently edited New Perspectives on Technical Editing (Baywood Publishing, 2010), and, for an added twist, he reads manuscripts and makes publishing recommendations to a mystery fiction publisher in exchange for free books.
Murphy currently resides in Lacey and will be moving later this summer to Vancouver, Washington, to be closer to his sons and their families.
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