Wake historian Elizabeth Reid Murray dies at 88

mquillin@newsobserver.comMarch 14, 2014 

— Elizabeth Davis Reid Murray, who loved, documented and made Wake County history, slipped quietly into it Thursday at the age of 88.

Her life’s work – the encyclopedic, two volume “Wake: Capital County of North Carolina” – will long outlive her as the most authoritative source of information on what she considered “just the finest place on Earth.”

Murray was not a Wake County native. She was born June 10, 1925, in Wadesboro, in Anson County. She came to Raleigh to study English at Meredith College and stayed after graduating with honors in 1946. She took a job as a writer for radio station WPTF before returning briefly to Wadesboro to work for WADE radio. She came back to Raleigh, married WPTF radio presenter James W. Reid, and settled in for good.

While her husband served on the Raleigh City Council and was elected mayor, Murray worked a series of jobs: a brief stint as an English teacher at Broughton High School, director of Meredith’s news bureau, features editor and columnist at The News & Observer, executive secretary to the governor’s committee on aging, and research assistant to the late Dr. Clarence Poe.

In 1964, while the couple’s three children were still young, she agreed to write interpretive copy for some historical local photographs that Branch Banking and Trust Co. wanted to display. That, she told a newspaper writer later, was when “the research bug bit me.”

Four years later, the Wake County Historical Society contracted with her to produce a history for the county’s 1971 bicentennial. The group would pay for copying and for the film and developing for Elizabeth’s photos.

The author missed the deadline by 12 years.

What the society envisioned as a pamphlet turned into a passion. Every thread she pulled was connected to another and another, and Murray pursued each one. She chased down land grants, pored over court files, tracked down maps and bills of sale. She spent so much time in the state archives, said fellow historian Todd Johnson, who worked with her on the second Wake County volume, “She sort of had her own office in a corner. She wasn’t on staff, but I think she may have even had her own microfilm-reading machine.”

She was as good at reading people as she was dusty documents, and she talked to anybody who could help her fill in historical gaps.

She took notes on all of it, using a portable typewriter where it wouldn’t distract other people, said her son, Jim Reid Jr., and writing it all down by hand if she needed to be quiet.

The scope of the project grew. It would eventually encompass from the time when what is now Wake County was a sand bar in the Atlantic Ocean, to when it was an Indian hunting ground, to the Revolutionary War and almost to the present. The material Murray gathered for the book filled the second floor of the home she shared with former N.C. State University nuclear scientist Raymond L. Murray, whom she married seven years after Jim Reid’s death.

Elizabeth Murray self-published the first volume of “Wake: Capital County” in 1983, packing in as much detail as would fit in the smallest type she could get away with, still leaving many hundreds of pages’ worth of material unused. While not a narrative of the county’s history, it tells the story of Wake through the people who settled, built and have occupied it, and gives readers a sense of what they saw and smelled and heard in their day. Where she couldn’t find a historical photograph to illustrate the heavily indexed book, she drew a picture with words based on facts pried from records and people’s recollections.

With the help of Wake County and co-author Johnson, she published a second volume in 2006.

“It was about 800 pages, and it probably could have been 2,000,” Johnson said. “She had so much.”

That year, Elizabeth and Raymond Murray moved to Springmoor Retirement Community. She let the staff at the county’s Olivia Raney Local History Library come and get her research materials, all 500 boxes – 1,000 linear feet – which was so well-organized, all the library staff had to do was assign it about 100 different subject labels and open it to researchers. It’s all there: the local post card collection, the history of the old textile mills, the stories of the how Wake County’s communities came together.

“That is our bible,” said Judy Allen Dodson, librarian-archivist at the Raney library. “People use this collection every day, all day long.”

“She was just an invaluable resource,” Dodson said. “Not just as a researcher, but as a woman. She was interested in everything, and everybody. She didn’t discriminate. And she did this because she loved Wake County. She loved its people. She wanted them to know the importance of other people.”

Arrangements for a memorial service for Murray will posted at www.brownwynne.com.

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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