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The Observer Oct. 27

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The Observer was a wiseacre in high school, not the sort likely to be a teacher’s pet. But he found himself choked up last week by the death of his high school Latin teacher, a tough and formidable woman who devoted decades to the only children she ever had, her students.

Iris Murphy shared a home with Lucille Leaton, a similarly dedicated teacher of Spanish. After school, they supervised the Kilties, a quaintly anachronistic girls’ drum corps. Its members wore heavy wool Scottish tartans, marched in a leg-wearying shuffle and culminated each season with a Highland fling by the senior members. The Kilties died when the high school did, rolled into a merger with another school. It wouldn’t have done to keep the Kilties but kill the Pantherettes. So both perished.

It was Louisiana and long ago. But the story has an Arkansas point of reference. Iris Murphy grew up in South Arkansas. She did her undergraduate work at what is now Henderson State University, in Arkadelphia. For three years in the turbulent ’60s, she endured The Observer, who talked too much, disturbed others, didn’t try hard enough and otherwise qualified for checks in virtually every item on those behavior lists that once appeared on report cards. “Your sister was such a WONDERFUL student,” was as close as we came to kind words from Miss Murphy. Until 1973.

That year, The Observer went to work for the Arkansas Gazette. On a trip home, we encountered Miss Murphy and told her about our new job. At last, for us, the crinkle-eyed grin that Miss Murphy generally reserved for Kiltie colonels and Latin students who had done their homework. She said she’d learned to read from parents who read aloud to her from the Arkansas Gazette. That her erstwhile student worked there meant a great deal to a small-town Arkansas girl. Her grin meant a great deal to a $130-a-week reporter as well.

Miss Murphy died after being moved from a Louisiana hospital when Hurricane Rita approached. A memorial service was scheduled this week in Lake Charles. A section was roped off for the generations of Kilties she led. They were to sing a song. The now-defunct high school alma mater — “Beneath the widespread oak trees, the grass grows fresh and green” — seems like a good choice to The Observer.



The Observer, otherwise occupied with family, did not make it to the opening of an exhibit of paintings by Warren Criswell at the Historic Arkansas Museum. What a mistake. In protest of the museum’s decision not to hang a couple of the more graphic of Criswell’s paintings — he does not shy away from references to sex or his own anatomy (which is, after all, always available for modeling) — a couple dozen folks, we’re told, showed up wearing the banned art emblazoned on new T-shirts. One art maven said their intention was to show Warren their support for his work, despite its offense to whomever.

Not only was there art for the looking, but wine for the drinking and a band for the listening, and the turnout, T-shirted and not, was reportedly big. Lesson to Fayetteville sex inspector Laurie Taylor: If you want to keep folks away from the naughty, don’t try to ban it. We like our fruit forbidden.



The Observer has been alerted to an e-Bay auction of a stuffed passenger pigeon. As of Monday, with six days and five hours left to bid, the reserve bid of $2,499.99 had not been met. Information provided by the seller suggests that the body is that of a female, 15 and ¼ inches long, and was owned by the seller’s great aunt. Family lore is that it was de-accessioned from a museum in Grosse Pointe, Mich.

We’re not really sure why anyone would pay a dime, much less $2,499.99, for a reminder of how men with guns can quickly wipe out every last one of an American bird, a species once so numerous its fly-bys could black out the sun. Or why a museum, which at least has a scientific excuse for owning such an object, would sell the thing.

We’re damn sure the money would be better spent keeping other American beauties alive. Especially the one said to be surviving in the swamps of Eastern Arkansas.




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