Writing the story of a pioneer

People are natural storytellers, but not all of them grow up to be writers. What makes the difference: genes or environment? In my case, it was both.

My daddy used to tell stories about me, his infant daughter, sleeping in his lap while he typed magazine articles on a Royal typewriter. It was the end of World War II and my mother had a salaried job, so Daddy became a house-husband for a while. The cadence of keystrokes created lullabies and gently nurtured the writer within my heart.

When I was still a little girl, Daddy would make up stories where his three children were the heroes. I can still remember one of them, almost word for word, 65 years later. The story is about a girl, (named Joyce, of course) whom the other children teased and bullied for having different colored eyes—one green and the other red—until the traffic light on Main Street broke, and Joyce saved the day by winking one eye, and then the other, to untangle the traffic jam of cars, buses, bikes and trucks, and save the day. No one ever teased her again.

Is it any wonder that I’m a storyteller and writer?

Since my retirement, I’ve been driving to Huntsville to go through the archives of the Texas Prison Museum. I am researching my mother’s role as the founding superintendent of the Windham School District, the nation’s first school system within a correctional institution. My intention is to write her biography and tell her story. She, too, was bullied and teased as she hired faculty and staff who shaped the non-graded, self-paced, individualized curriculum. But Lane Murray used her beauty and brains to get the naysayers out of the way, and she became a pioneer in correctional education.

I am struck by how times have changed since the early days of her tenure. Men could be so petty in the early 1970s… like the correctional officer who wrote her up for breaking state law when she picked a rose on state property, in front of The Walls, the Huntsville prison unit. The incident found its way into the employee newsletter and The Huntsville Item. Legend has it that she never stopped picking a rose every week to place on her office desk, and employees referred to the bush as Dr. Murray’s rose bush even after she retired.

Lane Murray always dressed well, aware that both men and women inmates delighted to get a first-hand look at how women on “the outside” dressed. She wore pearls with an emerald clasp, diamond stud earrings, classically tailored dresses, and Ferragamo shoes. She also carried a loaded Magnum .357 inside her Louie Vuitton handbag. She carried it for protection while traveling from one prison unit to another around the State. Occasionally, she forgot to leave it in her car, but this was before female employees’ handbags were searched, so neither correctional officers nor inmates knew.

She was so focused on making the school system a success that she wasn’t interested in being a poster figure for the feminist movement. However, truth be told, she influenced the movement through her actions—both by taking the lead and by moving other woman into positions that influenced public opinion. She had no plan or philosophy to emulate—she created the template that others would appreciate, respect and try to replicate.

Writing her story is something that is going to take time and concentrated effort to complete. She died in 2009, but there are other people to interview, secrets to uncover and accomplishments to be tracked. I’m both excited and humbled by the challenges I face.

But, honestly, I’m up to the task. My daddy taught me how to shape a story, spiced with anecdotes and intriguing facts so you don’t doze off before the end.