PAWTUCKET — Jeanne (Rice) Murphy, who died last Thursday at age 84, had a career unlike almost any other reporter at the old Pawtucket Times.
Murphy first began working for the newspaper as a high school intern back in 1944.
“The newsroom had been decimated by World War II,” Jeanne’s daughter Sheila recalled. “The managing editor liked the way my mother wrote and offered her a job.”
Murphy graduated from Pawtucket East High School and took a full-time reporter’s position with the Times, eventually marrying an editor named Jim Murphy, who grew up in Whitinsville, Mass. She left the Times to raise her children, Gregory and Sheila, before returning to the newspaper full-time in 1966.
Murphy covered local news, including the urban renewal project in Pawtucket. She followed the ongoing story for several years.
“The Annual Meeting was scheduled to be held at the To Kalon Club,” Sheila Murphy said, recounting an anecdote passed down through the years. “When members of the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency were planning the meeting, they realized no women were allowed inside the exclusive club. John Q. Calista, executive director of the PRA, said ‘We have to have the meeting somewhere else. We can’t have the meeting without Jeanne.’ And so they moved the meeting.”
Murphy was a trailblazing female reporter in an era when most women working in newsrooms were assigned to write feature stories for the “women’s page,” as it was known in those days.
“Jeanne was one of the first women in the newsroom who was not specifically assigned to what was then the women’s page,” said former Times managing editor Arnold Bailey. “She was an outstanding writer, especially with feature articles. The breadth of her interests and her knowledge allowed her to report with authority on a wide diversity of issues and subjects.
“Her sense of humor often showed through in her writing, and at appropriate times,” Bailey added. “Not a lot of writers are able to make that work but Jeanne could.”
In 1976, Jeanne befriended a young sports reporter named Julie Dalton who would make some history of her own when she was named to succeed sports editor Ted Mulcahey, who died after covering a New England Patriots game in November of 1978.
“There were now four women in the newsroom,” Dalton recalled. “Jeanne was happy to see the number grow. She knew everything about Pawtucket, almost everything about Rhode Island, much about New England, a lot about food and even a little about sports.
“She offered me a criticism that I tried to take to heart, having no one to truly edit my stories. She suggested once, and only once, that a 44-word lead paragraph seemed excessive.”
Julie eventually moved on to the Boston Globe but she still kept in touch with her friend and mentor.
“Jeanne and I remained friends, going out to eat, savoring The China Inn when it was in its humble beginning. We would split the check down to the final penny, no matter my pleas to be allowed to pay, just once!
“Jeanne was the matriarch of The Times, though she would never act the part,” Dalton concluded. “Jeanne was always there for me, faithful in her friendship, undemanding, cheerful, uncomplaining, savoring a drink and dinner, remembering so much of what most of us forget. She was just doing what a good reporter (and friend) does.”
Sheila Murphy remembers how her mother’s articles resonated with readers.
“I was with her several times when people would see/hear her name (on a check; doing some sort of business transaction) and say ‘Are you the person who writes those great stories for The Times? I love reading your stories.’ For her, that was the measure of success.”
Bailey recalled how the Murphys – Jim and Jeanne – made such a positive impact on the Pawtucket Times.
“Jeanne and Jim both had a real sense of what newspapers were all about,” he said. “It was an exciting time to be working at The Times.”
Jim Murphy retired from The Times in 1978 and passed away in 1997. Jeanne Murphy retired from The Times in 1991, ending a career that began during her senior year in high school and continued until she was 65 years old. The reporters and editors who worked with her during the final decade of her career had the same kind of respect for Murphy that Arnie Bailey and other contemporaries displayed for this gentle woman who always had a twinkle in her eyes and a smile on her face.
“She was just the nicest person in the world,” said Bill Oziemblewski, a Pawtucket native who spent 15 years working with Murphy in The Times’ newsroom. “And she was a very good reporter, too.”
Ironically, Jeanne’s brother-in-law, Joseph Murphy of Whitinsville, Mass., passed away less than an hour after Jeanne drew her last breath early last Friday morning.
“My mother and Joe were great pals,” Sheila Murphy said. “They were always very fond of each other. Joe taught my mother to drive because she made my father too nervous when she got behind the wheel!”