Lowell McMurtrey: WSHS Alumnus, Teacher, and POW
Tue, 09/28/2021 - 4:37pm admin
My freshman year in 1961, I heard the sophomores talk about how hard the new World History teacher was and how much homework he assigned. Some girls said they were afraid of him. One guy told me Mr. McMurtrey slammed a burly upperclassman against a locker for mouthing off.
Lowell McMurtrey projected a formidable presence in the classroom, but for me he proved to be an excellent teacher, and one not soon forgotten. Knowledgeable and interesting, he wanted students to think and not just parrot information.
In some respects, his teaching technique was that of a law school professor asking probing questions to engage a student’s mind. Of a particular historic event, he would typically ask, “What’s the significance of that?” On his tests, students got points for remembering the facts, but received additional credit for knowing why the fact was important.
But woe to the student not paying attention. A few years ago, classmate David Zimmerman recalled an incident when Mr. McMurtrey caught Jimmy “Tee” Thomas (Class of ’65 valedictorian) reading his math book during World History class. David said, “He took Jimmy’s math book and threw it up against the back wall in history class. Tee jumped about 3-feet off his chair.”
His likeable son Kenny was a classmate in World History. Mr. McMurtrey would matter of factly call on Kenny in class, without any indication of their relationship or recrimination for an incorrect answer. I don’t recall anyone ever talking to Kenny about his dad. I never did. We were politely respectful like that back then.
Who was this teacher, who at times sparked controversy and had detractors, but also had students who claimed him as their best teacher ever? A deft summary, written by faculty editor Jessie Munford in the 1962 Willamizzou, provides some insight. “Alumnus Lowell McMurtrey finally came home to teach two classes of world history, one in citizenship, and a class in driver education.” Additionally, she noted, “Mr. McMurtrey is a voluminous reader—three daily newspapers, numerous magazines, and historical books.”
Without excessive sentimentality, Mrs. Munford succinctly added, “A veteran of World War II, who suffered months of imprisonment, he is an ardent advocate of democracy. His classes have appreciated a well-organized unit on world communism as well as the dangers of extreme rightists.”
Other than yearbook copy describing a faculty member, what was Mrs. Munford’s intent? Aware that people other than students read the Willamizzou, I suspect it was a rhetorical defense of Mr. McMurtrey.
Because he talked about totalitarian governments and communists in his classes, some parents concluded he was teaching communism and registered complaints. Marilyn Sherrill Cummins (WSHS, 1964) says, “I remember when Mr. McMurtrey was teaching us about communism and he almost lost his job. He wanted us to know about communism and what it does to people and the school board took it as if he was teaching us to be communists.”
At the time, I thought the uproar was ridiculous, and Mrs. Munford, who obviously understood the object lesson of the Chicken Little story, wanted an accurate recording for posterity.
Rumors abounded about Mr. McMurtrey. We knew he had been a prisoner of war, but our information was vague. He, like most of his generation, didn’t talk about his war experience. Some thought he had escaped from a Stalag and trudged under the cover of darkness from Germany to France. Some thought he had been on the Bataan Death March. So, what’s the real Lowell McMurtrey story?
Lowell’s father, McKinley (M.K.) McMurtrey, a lawyer admitted to practice in 1919, moved his wife and their only child to Willow Springs in 1938, after practicing law in Washington and Wright Counties. In 1944, Governor Donnell appointed M.K. to the bench as Howell County Probate Judge.
Lowell, born in Potosi, Missouri, on August 24, 1922, graduated from WSHS in 1941. The ’41 Willamizzou pictures a darkly handsome young man and the attribution, “Too bad girls, he’s already attached.” On June 11, 1942, he married Margaret Mitchell [not the author of Gone with the Wind], the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Roy Mitchell of Willow Springs. [Some readers will recall Roy Mitchell operated a small grocery store at the corner of Walnut and Park where he held court when he was the Willow Springs police judge.]
After graduation he worked for a period at Garrett’s Grocery and attended college at Arkansas State in Jonesboro. In December 1942, newly married and 20-years old, Lowell enlisted in the United States Army a year after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.
I surmise from a local newspaper account that he left the day after Christmas for basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, home of the Armored Force School. There, Lowell and other recruits received training in the use of tanks and other armored vehicles.
Lowell never got a furlough home after basic training. The Journal-Gazette, a West Plains newspaper, reported, “When he [McMurtrey] had been in the army four months he went overseas to Africa. He went through the African campaign in the Seventh Army [commanded by General George S. Patton, Jr.] and was then transferred to the Fifth Army [commanded by General Mark Wayne Clark] and saw action at the Salerno landing.” Some of the fiercest fighting of the war happened in Italy.
On March 1, 1944, the War Department, by telegram, notified his mother, Adel McMurtrey, that her son had been reported missing in action since February 3, 1944.
Later in life, Lowell and Margaret McMurtrey donated correspondence, photos, and newspaper clippings to the University of Missouri, which are stored at the State Historical Society in Columbia. I arranged for the collection to be couriered to the St. Louis Research Center on the UMSL campus. The files proved to be a treasure trove of information.
At the beginning of my research for this article, I pictured the 6-foot, solidly-built teacher I knew in the 1960s. A man who spoke with command authority and didn’t suffer nonsense from students. But in the process my view changed. I recalled a course I took in which the instructor led the class in a meditation exercise. He asked us to visualize a scene from childhood. In my mind’s eye, I saw my parents and was startled at how young they looked—younger than I was at the time. The exercise gave me a different perspective and appreciation of them.
Similarly, holding Mr. McMurtrey’s dog tags and the War Department telegram reporting him missing in action, and reading the postcards of a young man, who only wanted to get home to his wife and parents, changed my understanding of Lowell McMurtrey.
I will share more in Part 2 of the Lowell McMurtrey story.
To be continued.