Mesa Musings: Tough editor became patient professor

When Orange Coast College hired Tom Murphine in 1985 as a journalism professor, I winced.

He'll scare students away!

I'd seen "Murph" at work in the Daily Pilot newsroom. With rolled up sleeves, a no-nonsense demeanor and smoldering pipe jutting from his jaw, he could be intimidating — not unlike Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post.

He was the Pilot's superb managing editor for years. He was respected, admired and feared by reporters. I saw him on several occasions toss a sheet of copy back at a reporter and demand a rewrite.

"You're better than that," he'd say.

An Orange County native, Murph was the first baby born in the original San Clemente Hospital in 1929. His grandfather was San Clemente's first mayor, from 1928 to 1934.

Murph, a Laguna Beach High School and San Jose State graduate, served in the U.S. Air Force. He worked with the Pilot for two decades, joining the staff in the 1960s. During his tenure he mentored scores of reporters, editors and photographers. To a person, they were grateful for the experience.

I first met Murph in 1971. I was a recent Cal State Fullerton communications grad, and was working as an assistant in OCC's public information office.

It was my occasional duty to drop photos and press releases off in the Pilot newsroom. Reporters would frequently instruct me to "take that to Tom." So, with great foreboding and reluctance, I'd enter his office.

"Hello, Carnett," he'd rumble in his rich baritone, without looking up. He'd thrust out a hand: "Let's see it."

Murph would grunt and take a pull on his pipe. "That the best photo you could come up with?" he'd quip. Then he'd examine my copy.

"The third graph. What were you trying to say?"

While an OCC staffer during the 1970s and '80s, I worked many nights as a Pilot stringer, covering local high school football and basketball games. Occasionally Murph would be on the desk when I'd return to the office to file my story. He was always congenial, but also always an editor.

I remember he once complimented my work … and I couldn't help but beam with pride.

As good an editor as Murph was, he was an even better writer. For years he penned a popular Daily Pilot column, Just Coastin', and always referenced our particular shore as "the best of all possible coasts."

By the way, he wouldn't have countenanced for a moment Orange County's recent "The OC" label. Too slick!

In 1985, I was assigned to the OCC committee charged with hiring a new journalism instructor. That instructor would also serve as advisor to the school newspaper.

Murph applied.

He was by far the best candidate, and we hired him, but I wondered if we'd made a mistake. He was tough!

Murph joined the faculty and became the sweetest, gentlest, most patient college professor you could imagine. No longer "The Newsroom Terror," students fell in love with Murph, and he them.

Though newspapers had been his life to that point, teaching soon became his passion. And he was darned good at it!

"Tom had a huge impact on my life," said Tony Altobelli, one of Murph's students in the 1980s. Altobelli enjoyed a career as a sports editor, and today serves as OCC's sports information director.

"He was a great teacher. He taught me how to perform under deadline pressure, and how to guide others and help them through pressure-filled situations."

My daughter took Murph's journalism class as a freshman and loved it. He provided her with a great foundation for writing. Though she earned a graduate degree in English literature, Murphine always remained her favorite professor.

He cared.

Tom Murphine was diagnosed with cancer in 1994. He lost weight and his students knew he was seriously ill, but he never lost his enthusiasm for teaching. He continued to meet with his students through September 1997. He died two months later, at 68.

Those of us who were privileged to know him still miss him!

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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