Good Night, Fran

We will never see the likes of her again.

She was an Akron original, as unique and as immediately recognizable as the Goodyear blimp. The pronounced limp, the trademark bib overalls, the mop of shocking white hair, the big, hearty laugh, the many eccentricities -- all hid the fact that a giant walked in our midst.

And now, Frances Burke Murphey, an Akron Beacon Journal writer for 55 years, is no more. Miss Murphey died at 3:30 a.m. yesterday at age 75, after a short battle with liver cancer. A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Friday at Boston Heights Village Hall, 45 E. Boston Mills Road.

A piece of Akron history has died with Miss Murphey.

"The heart of the Beacon Journal stopped beating yesterday," said Mickey Porter, editor of Porter's People.

Miss Murphey never won a Pulitzer Prize, never worked for the New York Times and never covered a war in some far-off land.

But she had something they can't teach you in journalism school. She had a passionate heart. And a love for people and this community that never dimmed.

"Fran had a heart as large as all outdoors," said her friend Margaret Dietz.

It was this stout heart, this love for Akron, that made her a beloved figure here.

"Fran always wanted to do for the little people," said Helen Yocum, another friend. "I always felt like maybe she was an underdog at some point in her life. She was very aware of the underdog."

In her Good Afternoon and Good Morning columns, Miss Murphey wrote about retirements, weddings, college reunions, outings, anniversaries -- all the things that make up a life. Her homespun columns were a mirror in which the community saw its own reflection.

But the gentle, desultory tone of the columns belied the fierce intelligence, the vise-like memory that made her more than a journalist. It made her a fount of knowledge about the Akron area and its history. A drive around town with Miss Murphey was never a simple car ride, it was an education.

It wasn't just culture and history that were her forte. Miss Murphey also knew every place in Ohio that served a fried bologna sandwich. Or rice pudding without raisins.

"Fran could never drive down a street straight," said Polly Paffilas, a longtime Beacon Journal writer. "If you went with her for ice cream, she'd make a five-mile detour, pointing out things."

Five decades after they both started at the Beacon Journal, Paffilas still recalls her first look at the imposing Miss Murphey:

"I looked up and there was this tall woman, wearing bib overalls and a plaid shirt. She had beautiful black hair and brown eyes. I don't believe I saluted her. But she scared me to death. . . . It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Newspapering, Miss Murphey often said, was in her blood.

Her mother, Marie L. (Thompson) Murphey, was a correspondent with the Akron Times Press, which merged with the Beacon Journal in 1938. While in junior high, Fran would accompany her mother to political meetings. On election nights, mother and daughter would tally the results by flashlight to get them into the paper the next day.


Miss Murphey, a graduate of Hudson High School and Kent State University, was born in a house in Macedonia on Dec. 24, 1922. As many of her columns showed, a sense of place, of home, was very important to her writing.

In a 1993 column, she described an idyllic childhood: "We grew up on 138 acres spanning Hudson and Macedonia townships. This was a place with pawpaw and walnut trees, 'pinkie' mushrooms, bushes that yielded blackberries with bramble scratches and old-fashioned gooseberries that scratched our throats."

Miss Murphey is survived by four nephews and three nieces, Arland Rininger of Sharon Township, Dean Rininger of Copley Township, Sheldon Rininger of Akron, Barbara Joy Godar of Akron, Larry Rininger of Copley Township, Cherie Dachtler of Akron and Marie Fogle of Hartville.

For all her gregariousness, the most recognizable woman in Akron was essentially a private person.

"Fran had a lot of friends. But she never had close friends," Yocum said. "She spread herself very thin. She'd never admit she had a problem. I never saw her cry."

Paffilas did see Miss Murphey cry on occasion. But she, too, said: "She was running away from something. I've never figured out what it was. I don't know if anyone really knew her. Murphey collected people. All these people she picked up, maybe they filled a void."

One result of spreading herself so thin was that Miss Murphey was always running late. Always. If she was invited to a dinner party, her friends knew it was all right to eat without her. She never seemed to mind.

To call Miss Murphey a workaholic doesn't do the word justice.

"The Beacon Journal was the most important thing to her," Yocum said. "It was her husband, child, everything."

She sacrificed her home life to her job. This was a woman who never married, who never owned a color television or a microwave, who for years lived in an old farmhouse in Boston Heights without indoor plumbing or heat. She would routinely fall asleep on a couch in a restroom at the Beacon Journal after pulling an all-nighter.


Art Cullison, who as an assistant state editor supervised Miss Murphey for several years in the 1960s, recalls frequently coming to work at 5:30 a.m. to a note from Miss Murphey asking him to bang on the restroom door to wake her up.

"She was solid gold," said Dale Allen, the Beacon Journal's former editor. "She set the tone around the office in terms of integrity, getting things right. And she was just a rock in the community. She defined the Beacon Journal for a couple of generations of readers."

Betsy Lammerding, assistant features editor, agrees.

"Fran was a consummate reporter," Lammerding said. "Always she thought of the reader. Even from her hospital bed, she would put together her weekly Excursion travel column.

"In fact, while hospitalized, she learned of the death of local restaurateur Joseph Iacomini. In the midst of being moved to the intensive-care unit because of internal bleeding, she took time to call the Beacon Journal newsroom to report his death for an obituary. When she gets to heaven, I wouldn't be surprised if Fran finds some way to send news from the beyond."


Beacon Journal Publisher John Dotson recalls that when he and Editor Jan Leach went to visit Miss Murphey at the hospital, they had to wait in the hallway while she finished a phone call for her Sunday travel column.

Over the years, Miss Murphey's idiosyncracies became part of Akron's folklore. Like many people of uncommon intelligence, she was eccentric as hell. It was this larger-than-life aspect that made legions of Akron-area residents gleefully trade their favorite Fran Murphey stories.

Dietz tells about the time when Miss Murphey's doctor weighed her purse because she was not allowed to carry more than 10 pounds after her knee surgery. The purse weighed more than 10 pounds because, among other things, it contained Miss Murphey's three cameras, film, scissors and glue.

"She was a free spirit," Paffilas said. "She didn't give a good goddamn about anything. She did it her way. She was a vagabond, in a way. She danced to her own drummer."

After all, how many people do you know who go around presenting slide shows on outhouses? Or who send people postcards and then sweet-talk, emotionally blackmail and just plain bully them into giving them back to add to a 200,000-plus card collection? Or who show up for their retirement party at the Civic Theatre and then sit onstage taking photographs of the audience?

How many times have you visited someone in the hospital and had the patient take a picture of you?

And how many elderly women do you know who drive all over the state and simply pull over and sleep in their car when they are too tired to drive?

At the Beacon Journal, employees learned not to bat an eye when someone would rush into the newsroom to announce that he had just spotted a dead body in a car in the parking deck.

"Don't worry," reporters and editors would say with a yawn. "That's just Fran sleeping. Whatever you do, don't wake her up."


Susan Reynolds, former chief news clerk at the Beacon Journal, called Miss Murphey the "watchdog of recycling" in the newsroom.

One morning, Reynolds came to work to find all the folders she had thrown away the previous evening stacked back on her desk. A note in Miss Murphey's distinctive handwriting said, "All this material can be recycled."

She was a pioneer in more ways than you can count. As she was quick to tell you, she was not the first woman hired at the Beacon Journal. But when she started there in 1943, women reporters were enough of a rarity that she had to sign a contract saying that her job was temporary, that the men returning from World War II could have it if they wanted it.

"Just in case that day ever came, Fran once told me she learned how to operate the Beacon's elevator and switchboard," said Joan Rice, assistant features editor.

The newsroom was a more diverse place by the time Rice started at the Beacon Journal in 1966.

"Women role models ran the gamut -- everything from Betty Jaycox, in her full-length black mink, to Fran Murphey, in her bibs and boots," Rice recalled.

"But I never got the impression Fran expected anyone to emulate her. She did her thing. You could do yours. Fran was Fran. In lock step with no one. The real deal."

The real deal. Miss Murphey single-handedly ensured that both the University of Akron and the Akron-Summit County Public Library opened their board meetings to the public. She did so by sheer dint of personality, badgering the trustees, citing the law, until they finally gave in.

Dietz, who worked at the library from 1963 to 1974, remembers a young, imposing-looking woman covering these meetings, dressed in boots and overalls.

"She'd offset them with these fancy, fancy earrings," she recalled.

"She was the best supporter the library ever had. All these public meetings are public because of her."

Pam Creedon, director of Kent State University's School of Journalism, called Miss Murphey a "stalwart supporter" of her alma mater. Until the end, Miss Murphey attended every monthly alumni council meeting. She frequently spoke to students and quoted the motto of William Taylor, the first director of the journalism school: "Nothing short of right is right."


She gave money to the school to establish two funds -- the Frances B. Murphey Fellowship Fund for bringing in visiting professors and the Frances B. Murphey Scholarship Fund for female journalism students.

With money from the ticket sales to her 1996 retirement party at the Civic Theatre also going into the scholarship fund, the two funds currently have about $30,000.

But Creedon believes Miss Murphey's contributions cannot be measured by money alone.

"Fran represented the kind of courageous women who entered a (nontraditional) field and made way for women like me to enter the field," she said. "And she stayed. She is a legend."

But if Miss Murphey gave her heart, her time, her very self to her community, the community paid her back.

This was a woman who could not go anywhere in Ohio without running into a familiar face. Strangers sent her postcards to add to her famous collection. Once a week an old man used to quietly come up to the Beacon Journal newsroom and stick a piece of pie in Miss Murphey's mailbox.

Miss Murphey was visibly moved to see the hundreds of readers show up at her Civic Theatre retirement party. She laughed as speaker after speaker took to the stage dressed in bib overalls. She took pictures of the outhouse constructed on the stage.

And she was uncharacteristically silent when publisher Dotson announced that she had won Knight Ridder Newspapers' 1996 John S. Knight Excellence Award for Community Service.

Dotson says the Beacon Journal held Miss Murphey's retirement party at the Civic because "it was the largest-capacity place we could find. And it was nearly filled with her fans."


A few years before her retirement, the Beacon Journal figured that Miss Murphey had written more than 30 million words and taken more than 40,000 photos.

But unlike many workaholics, Miss Murphey never neglected her friendships. Even while undergoing a battery of tests while hospitalized in September, she sent Yocum a note and a check. The note asked her to carry on with the lunch Miss Murphey had set up months earlier for about 10 friends. The check was to pay for their meal.

After her retirement from the Beacon Journal -- though "retirement" isn't quite an accurate word since she continued to write her weekly travel column until her death -- Miss Murphey still did not have time to unpack the scores of boxes she moved from her office to her home. But she would find time to gather housebound acquaintances and take them along on road trips.

Corky Gutter of University Heights recalls a trip to southern Ohio that was intercepted by a detour to a nursing home. Miss Murphey spent a half-hour visiting an old woman in her 90s.

She was especially mindful of the elderly, said her niece, Barbara Joy Godar, who cared for her in her last months.

"I have a flower garden with hundreds and hundreds of flowers," Godar said. "She used to go to nursing homes and bring people here to see the flowers. . . . She brought many, many people here over the years. . . . She didn't pay too much attention to herself, she was all newspaper."

Paffilas recalls accompanying Miss Murphey on a trip to Germany, where they saw a Passion play. Miss Murphey slept through the play because she'd been up all night writing postcards to friends. She even sent postcards to the homes of all the people who were on the bus tour with her.

After a party at the Beacon Journal, she would make the clerks pack up the lettuce from party trays and she would then take it over to the home of a friend who raised rabbits.

But it would be doing an injustice to Miss Murphey's memory to portray her as an angel. She was no such thing. Her appetites were too large, her intelligence too restless, her pursuit of truth too obsessive for that. Indeed, if the Old Testament had had female prophets, Miss Murphey would have fit the bill.

After two decades, Gutter still remembers Miss Murphey's wrath. While working as public relations officer for Hale Farm and Village in Bath, Gutter would get a phone scolding from Miss Murphey every time she sent out a press release.

"This isn't a press release, this is a high school English theme," Miss Murphey would say. "You don't need those adjectives."


Finally, after six months of critiquing, Gutter got another call. "You finally made it," the voice said.

"I felt like I'd graduated from college," Gutter said. "I just jumped up and down with joy."

Miss Murphey was never daunted by position or power.

She met Oliver Ocasek when they were both students at Kent State in the 1940s. They remained close friends.

Decades later, Ocasek, then president of the Ohio Senate, was about to convene a meeting when he heard a loud voice say, "Hey buster, stand still so I can take a picture."

Two Senate guards came rushing in. "You want her removed?" they asked Ocasek.

"Removed? Oh, my God, no. If you do, I'll be a dead pigeon," replied the head of that august chamber.

Heck, even Allen was afraid of her. When the Beacon Journal newsroom was being remodeled in the early '90s, Allen and then-managing editor Jim Crutchfield decided that Miss Murphey should have her own office.

"We cooked up the scheme because of her constantly spreading empire," Allen said. "But I wasn't gonna tell her (about the move). I didn't have the guts to do it."

The "empire" refers to Miss Murphey's mind-boggling spread of personal possessions. Basically, she threw nothing out. Newspapers were piled from floor to ceiling. Her desk was so covered with papers that she had to type with the keyboard on her lap. And when she ran out of space, she would sneak boxes under other people's desks.


Allen had good reason to be afraid of Miss Murphey. She was so democratic in her tongue-lashings that being her editor was no protection. Just ask Cullison.

"The most endearing thing about her was to call you an s.o.b.," Cullison said with a laugh. "She'd call the editor of the paper an s.o.b. She always said, 'I never cuss out my enemies.' "

The amazing thing is, even the people Miss Murphey insulted by her trademark "Go to hell," were not insulted. The ones she told to go to hell treasured it as a compliment. People would shrug off her chronic lateness, her legendary temper or her hilarious eccentricities with an affectionate, bemused, "That's Fran."

Because those who knew her sensed the goodness behind the gruffness.

Reynolds recalled with pride the time Miss Murphey told her to go to hell and walked away in a huff. Minutes later, she returned. "You know why I told you to go to hell, right?" she asked. "It's because when I end up there, I want my friends there."

No dice, Fran.

If prayers count for anything, there's no hell in your future. Instead, they probably steered you toward the Big Guy with the white, overflowing beard. With any luck, he was wearing bib overalls.

Drop us a postcard.


Akron Beacon Journal
Tuesday, November 10, 1998