June Lytel-Murphy, retired professor, remembered

Daina Amorosano

June Waldo Lytel-Murphy, the retired English professor and longtime adviser to The Villanovan who not only introduced journalism into the curriculum, but also to the likes of a number of accomplished journalists — including one Pulitzer Prize winner and an editor-in-chief of the New York Times Magazine — died on Oct. 19 in Haverford Estates, Pa. She was 80.

Throughout her tenure at Villanova, as a professor, adviser to the newspaper and a part of the founding group of the women’s studies program, Lytel-Murphy did a lot of pushing.

“She encouraged us as journalists to push the boundaries, not over, but to the line,” said Terry O’Toole, who was editor-in-chief of The Villanovan from 1979-’80. “She was like no other professor I had at Villanova.”

For her excellence in teaching, Lytel-Murphy received the Lindback Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1990 — a formal testament to the experiences many of her students recount having had with her. 

“I met June my first semester as an undergrad, in the fall of 1970,” said former student and colleague of Lytel-Murphy, Madeline Baxter, who entered Villanova two years after women began matriculating into the College of Arts & Sciences. “I had Lit. Comp. I with her on Monday-Wednesday-Friday at 1:30 in John Barry. I was the only female in the class. I remember vividly that she was quick, and she was funny — and that I was the only one laughing at her jokes.”

While Lytel-Murphy taught at Villanova, she worked on the side as a consultant for a textbook publisher in Philadelphia. 

“June wasn’t a pure academic. She had lived a full life,” Baxter said. “What was refreshing about her was that she had worked in the world outside the academy. She had lived more diversely in both industry and life and could offer practical knowledge to her students. Literature did reflect life in many cases, and she was able to point it out.”

When she taught Jewish authors, she could bring knowledge to it, Baxter said.

“She was a woman of strong beliefs, a faithful woman — her Jewish faith was a part of her,” she said.

Lytel-Murphy began her career at Villanova as a teaching assistant in 1969, while she earned a Master’s degree in English. She became a full-time faculty member in 1971 and taught American literature, women’s studies and journalism courses, among others.

But her teaching extended beyond the confines of the classroom, particularly in her work as faculty adviser to The Villanovan, a role she filled for 13 years. Her work with the newspaper was referred to as her “one-woman journalism school” in the University’s Campus Currents on Oct. 22. 

“Probably more than any professor I had in the classroom, she had a profound influence on me and my career choices,” said Beth White Delaney, sports editor from 1979-’81, who is now a fundraiser at the University of Pennsylvania. That Delaney was sports editor a decade before women began covering professional sports was a reflection of Lytel-Murphy’s convictions.

“She was the only person on campus focusing on print journalism, and she was the only one teaching how to write a story,” O’Toole said.

Her “one-woman journalism school” boasts a roster of such successful journalists as Diana K. Sugg, a medical writer for the Baltimore Sun who won journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, for beat reporting in 2003; Gerald Marzorati, a ’75 graduate who held one of the most influential positions in journalism as editor-in-chief of the New York Times Magazine; bureau editor for the Charlotte Observer, Joe Marusak, class of 1985; and many others throughout the country.

“She taught me what a woman journalist could be,” Sugg said. “She opened the door for me, and she stood by me, and I’ll be thankful for the rest of my life that I was lucky enough to have worked with and learned from her.”

“The paper here isn’t a daily, and we don’t have a journalism major, but because of [Lytel-Murphy], I think students got an experience comparable to one they would have gotten at a school with a journalism major,” said Vice President for Student Life, Rev. John Stack, O.S.A., who was dean of students when Lytel-Murphy was adviser to The Villanovan.

In the days before the digital era, Lytel-Murphy would spend Tuesday nights with the editors, reviewing articles before they would tie everything together on Wednesdays, and on Thursdays they would go down to the printer in Bryn Mawr — using an Exacto knife and a cut-and-paste method to lay out the paper.

“What was valuable was that her presence really allowed them to get to know her and realize that she knew what she was talking about, and it provided an opportunity for them to develop mentee-mentor relationships,” Stack said. “I certainly know from many former students how much of a good role model she was and how much they respected and were inspired by her.”

Marusak wrote a letter thanking Lytel-Murphy for her positive impact on him at the time of her retirement 10 years ago.

“June cared deeply about us and what we told readers, and I’ve tried my best over the years to emulate those traits,” he wrote in the letter. “That’s no small order, but having had such mentors as June keeps journalists like me going.”

For anyone who met Lytel-Murphy, her high-energy, dynamic presence — not to mention her impeccable fashion sense and her long red fingernails — was something to speak of.

“She was one hell of a snappy dresser,” said George Murphy, also a former professor of English, who was known to be quite dapper himself and whom she met as a graduate student in his course on the 19th century American novel before they eventually married in 1987. Murphy would dress for his classes — if he taught Fitzgerald, he would dress accordingly, Baxter said. 

“She hated me at first,” Murphy told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “because I gave her a B-plus. She received A’s in all her other courses.”

They were a handsome, sophisticated couple on campus. Together, they enjoyed reading, dining out and traveling, and they spent several weeks in England each summer.

A progressive force on campus, Lytel-Murphy was known as a woman who went to bat for her students and for what she thought was right. In one case, that meant standing up to men’s basketball former Head Coach Rollie Massimino, who wasn’t thrilled about having a female sports writer in his press room.

“She was one of the best teachers I’ve ever met,” Murphy said. “Of course I’m biased. She was a very intelligent woman and extremely protective over her students.”

And she was so with grace and style.

“When she walked in, you knew she was there,” Baxter said.

“She was a force,” Sugg said, recounting her sophisticated, stylish presence, including the high-heeled boots, long skirts and jewelry she would wear. “But then she had this really kind heart.”

“She had a real personality,” said Dante Scala, ’90 graduate and former editor-in-chief of The Villanovan who is now a professor at the University of New Hampshire. “She made a real impression on everyone who worked with her — if you met her, you remembered. If she gave you some advice, you remembered.”

Aside from her work in campus journalism as a teacher and moderator, Lytel-Murphy devoted a great deal of time in academic advisement and as an informal counselor to female students, an especially important service when there were not many female faculty at the University, according to Charles Cherry, who was chair of the English department when Lytel-Murphy taught here.

“June kept a rocking chair in her office in Vasey Hall — either she sat there or you sat there,” Sugg said. “She would stop what she was doing to help you. I would talk to her about issues with reporters or even things that were going on with my family. She was just there for me.”

But her role as mentor to her female students in no way detracted from her impact on the men she taught.

“There have been remarkable women who have edited The Villanovan, and June was a mentor to all of them,” Scala said. “Was she a feminist? Absolutely. But she was a mentor to me, too, as a young man. I never had the sense that women were equal and men weren’t as valued. I was completely comfortable in the environment she helped to create.”

Her impact on fledgling writers, whether she taught them in the classroom, mentored them in the newspaper office or did a combination of both, was nothing short of tremendous.

“When they were choosing news editors, I had heard that June wanted me to be it,” Sugg said. “To know that June Lytel thought I was good — I thought, ‘I must be good.’ The fact that she believed in me made me believe in myself, because she was so amazing.”

“June was one of the most important people in my life,” said Marzorati, who first met Lytel-Murphy in an introductory literature course in the fall of 1971 and just this week took over the post of assistant managing editor for new initiatives for the New York Times, an executive masthead position which will in essence help determine the future of the newspaper. “She gave me the confidence and direction to take a serious interest in literary reading, which I ended up devoting my life to. I don’t think I would have ever started down that road without her.”

In addition to being one of the first professors to teach a women’s studies course at Villanova in 1976, Lytel-Murphy was a part of the committee that created the women’s studies program at the University. 

“June was one of the most inspiring and articulate women for the women’s studies program over the years,” said Vice President for Mission and Ministry Barbara Wall, who created the committee and was the first director of the program, which became a major as the gender and women’s studies program this year.

During her career, Lytel-Murphy was also a member of the University’s Social Action Program, which helped prepare underprivileged students in the summer before their first year at Villanova for 15 years, as well as a teacher in the University’s program at Graterford Prison.

“She was very kind and generous,” Baxter said. “When you spoke with June, she was very present, and there was never judgment.”

Lytel-Murphy graduated from Temple University with a degree in journalism. 

Before she began studying as a Master’s student at Villanova and became a faculty member at the University, she taught at Akiba Hebrew Academy. 

Lytel-Murphy married her first husband, Frederick Lytel, in 1954. They had two children together before divorcing. 

“June would have an 8:30 [a.m.] class and have dinner prepared for her family before she got to campus,” Baxter said. “She was the whole package — the profile of a woman ahead of her time.”

She retired from the faculty in 2000.

“I loved her to death,” Murphy said. “I’m very proud of her.”

In addition to her husband, she is survived by her daughter, Leslie Grandy, of Seattle, Wash. and her son, Craig Lytel, of Louisville, Ky.

An informal memorial service will be held on Nov. 3 in Corr Chapel at 2:30 p.m. 

The service will be followed by a reception in the President’s Lounge from 4-5 p.m.