A Passion for Broadway
Imagine starting out your education by attending schools in three different states – before you finish first grade. That’s what Donna (Jewell) Murray did.
“We were gypsies,” she said. “My dad was a welder on the Erie Railroad, and we moved according to their whim. I started first grade at Addison Elementary in Brookfield, Ohio. Then the railroad moved us to Meadville. After I spent about three months in school there, Erie decided they needed Dad in Hornell, New York. So I finished first grade there.”
The moves made it nearly impossible for her to do well in school.
“I got through by memorizing, not learning. The second grade teacher in Hornell said, “Whoa, this little girl can’t read or write.’ Then Erie sent us back to Meadville. There they kept me back a grade. I am grateful for that. If they hadn’t, I probably would have been way behind all through school.”
Her life finally stabilized when she was in third grade.
“We were back here, and my dad started working at Westinghouse. When I finally found a home which was Sharpsville, I fell in love with it and never wanted to leave it. I still don’t want to leave even overnight.”
Austin Murray, her future husband, had a very different experience. He was in one school district for his entire education – though not the one he would have preferred.
“Half the street we lived on was in the Sharpsville school district and half was in Hickory,” he said. “I lived five or ten minutes walk away from Sharpsville schools and 2½ miles from Hickory. All my friends were in Sharpsville schools, but I had to go to Hickory.”
For his first three years, he attended one-room school Number Six on the corner of Route 18 and Lamor Road. For grades four through twelve, he went to the old Hermitage High School building.
“I used to go to Sharpsville football games because all my friends went to Sharpsville,” Austin said. “That’s where I met Donna.”
In high school, Donna loved journalism and worked with the school newspaper. In her junior year, she was elected to a national journalism society called the Quill and Scroll.
“Every year they had a symposium at Columbia University in New York City with kids from all over the country,” she said. “Miss Vanesky, our journalism teacher, took six of us to it. We stayed four or five days. Miss Vanesky took us to three Broadway shows: As You Like It, with Katherine Hepburn; Death of a Salesman, with Lee J. Cobb; and Kiss Me, Kate, with Patrice Munsel. That launched my lifelong love affair with live theater, especially musicals.”
That trip was memorable for another reason.
“We stayed at the Americana Hotel on Madison Avenue. On the first day, Miss Benesky took us to Columbia University on the subway. The next day we had to go on our own. We got there okay. We were real proud of ourselves. On the way back, they put me in charge, saying I knew the way back because I had taken notes on where to go. Wrong. We ended up in Spanish Harlem. We saw a policeman and told him our problem. He asked where we were from. We said, ‘You probably never heard of it – Sharpsville, PA.’ He said, ‘I know exactly where it is.’ He was from Youngstown. He told us how to get to our hotel.”
While in high school, Donna developed another interest.
“WPIC started what they called the Shenango Valley Forum,” she said. “It was sort of like Stan Boney’s Academic Challenge. I was chosen to participate when I was a junior. We were on the radio once every month. So radio became another area of interest for me.”
After high school, Austin worked in the mill at Shenango. For about 3½ years, then switched to Westinghouse. Donna had the chance to go to Villanova on full scholarship, but instead decided to go to work.
“I was dating Austie, and Philadelphia was quite a distance, so I decided to stay home. I applied to The Herald and to Bell Telephone. Bell called me after three days. I went to work for them. A week after, the Herald called. I could have worked for the newspaper.”
Donna and Austin got married on Saturday, Feb. 23, 1952. They headed for Philadelphia on their honeymoon – but they never made it. Donna’s discomfort with traveling away from Sharpsville got the best of her.
“We got as far as New Castle looking for a place to stay,” Austin said. “So we finally found a cabin. I paid for it. Then she said, ‘Oh we can’t stay here!’ We found a place further down the road where she conceded to stay.”
In spite of Donna’s homesickness, they kept going – until a fish chased them back to her beloved Sharpsville.
“On Tuesday, we stopped for dinner in Huntington, PA,” Austin said. “She thought she’d like to have some trout. They brought out the dinner, took the lid off – and there’s the whole fish, complete with head and eyes. That was it. We turned around and came back home.”
Austin worked at Westinghouse until it closed in 1984. His passion outside of work was playing softball.
“I was a pretty good pitcher. We won ten championships in the church leagues. Starting in 1970, I also played in the Westinghouse league. I played just about every night.
Donna and Austin wanted a baby.
“I finally got pregnant, quit Bell, and then I lost the baby,” she said.
She went back to work at Bell for a while.
“I had always done a little community service here and there. Al Zippay called me from WFAR. He wanted to know if I would do a community project. I did that for about three years, until I got pregnant with Maureen in 1958.”
Maureen inherited Donna’s love for music when she was very young.
“My mother was an excellent pianist,” Donna said. “She would hold Maureen on her lap while she played.”
When Maureen was five, she started taking lessons from Miss Patricia Fox, who helped develop her natural ability into genuine artistry. Miss Fox said that Maureen could play Mozart as well as some of the most famous pianists.
Donna didn’t go back to work until Maureen was in junior high.
“Al Zippay called and asked if I would sell radio time. I did that for about ten years, until Westinghouse folded.”
After Westinghouse closed, Austin started working for his brother-in-law.
“He and a couple of fellow teachers in Austintown saw that tour companies didn’t want to take middle and high school kids on trips,” he said. “So the teachers formed a company, 20th Century Tours, to organize trips to places like Chicago, Washington, New York, and Gettysburg. I provide security for them. I stay up all night in the hotel hallways to make sure none of the kids left, and that no one from outside bothered them. I’m still doing six or seven trips a year.”
Both Austin and Donna were active politically. Austin served on the Sharpsville City Council for more than 15 years. Donna served on the Sharpsville School Board.
In early 1992, Donna ended up in Cleveland Clinic after a couple of heart attacks. She had six catheterizations in twelve days, then balloon angioplasty. But the artery was so weak that it ripped. The doctors inserted three wire mesh stents to strengthen the arterial walls. A couple of months later she needed another operation, which was successful. In December, 1992, the Washington Post published an article about her in a special section on women’s health.
Health problems like that might slow some people down, but not Donna. In the late 1990s, she saw a performance of Toast of the Town Tappers, led by Bonnie Banick. She joined the group, and her passion for Broadway music and dance finally had an avenue for expression. The group practices once a week and performs at nursing homes and community functions. Donna and some other members of the group have even danced on Broadway in New York City – during the Macy’s Tap-a-Thon, with about 6,000 other tap dancers.
“Bonnie introduced us to the SCOPE people in Warren,” Donna said. “That’s Senior Citizens Opportunity for Personal Enrichment. They have been doing a follies show at Lakeview High School in Cortland for 19 years. We went to one of their shows, and on the way home we said, ‘We can do that!’ We got the Mercer County Area Agency on Aging to sponsor us.”
They’ve done it every year since, with Maureen Murray-Jaklic as musical director and Bonnie Banick or Lisa Aiello as choreographer. The fifth splendiferous show will be in the Hickory High School auditorium on August 2nd and 3rd.
Austin likes to sing in the chorus, but never solo.
“I tried that once, and it was a disaster,” he said.
Austin and Donna continue their very full life. Austin belongs to the Sharpsville Service Club and to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which he helped start six years ago. Donna still works for Judge St. John as “tip staff.”
“During medieval courts in England,” she said, “they had a bailiff who kept the jury awake by prodding them with a sharp stick. The term is still used in our courts. We are in charge of the jury. But I don’t poke them on purpose.”
“Nowadays you’d be likely to get poked back,” Austin said.
But then, Donna would probably just tap dance out of reach.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009