Chapter Two. Murphey Hall as Home
In the early years, the ’50s and ’60s, it would have been difficult to live in Murphey. There were no facilities for food–no way to store or prepare it–and if you wanted to lie down and sleep there were few options. One graduate student made a temporary bed out of a radiator in one of the graduate student offices. He spread a coat or two over the flat top of the radiator, thus creating a soft mattress, and slept on top, despite the risk of rolling over and falling off. But this was, so far as I know, an unusual and perhaps singular event. Elsewhere in the building, there were just a few opportunities for a good sleep. Bob Broughton, our distinguished Latin professor, placed several desk chairs in a row and then stretched out no them when he wanted to take a rest; later, he acquired a green leatherette sofa that he used for brief afternoon naps–in his 80s and 90s, he still worked all day but found a nap refreshing–and that sofa proved to be all too inviting to one of our janitors. The housekeeping staff arrived about 4:00 AM, and, after completing his tasks to his satisfaction, the janitor would, it seems, lie down on Bob’s sofa. On several occasions, arriving at his office about 9:00 in the morning, Bob found the janitor stretched out on the green faux leather, sound asleep.
In the early 1970s the dean gave the department the use of one room to serve as a departmental lounge, known as the “Common Room” (or, briefly, when someone rearranged the stick-on letters on the door, the “Common Moor”). The Common Room contained a homely but sturdy wooden table where faculty and students could have lunch and snacks; a refrigerator; a sink (cold water only); a sofa, loveseat, and easy chairs; and a variety of smaller tables, lamps, wooden chairs, and so on. In addition, there was a large bookcase containing dissertations written in the department, a long run of American Historical Review, and a collection of historical novels set in antiquity. The furniture, clean and handsome when new, was never replaced. The wear and tear on it prompted Bruce Egan, writing for the Chapel Hill Newspaper in about 1990, to characterize the room’s décor as “late thrift store.”
All the same, it was a comfortable and useful room. Many of us stashed our brown-bag lunches in the refrigerator, and graduate students took the lead in storing and then bringing out whole meals. Once the room acquired a microwave, the first in a long series of them, it became possible for the students to have not just something warmed up for lunch, but supper and breakfast as well. On rainy or wintry nights, or on nights when one needed to save time and keep working, it was possible to stay in Murphey overnight: microwave supper, sleep on the sofa, make instant coffee in the morning. Murphey Hall became, on those rare occasions, a home.1
The sofa in the common room attracted outsiders. One Sunday morning, when I had gone to my office to grade papers, I entered the common room in order to heat water for coffee. As I unlocked the door, I heard a brief flurry of activity within, and when I entered I found a stranger busily dusting off the books in the bookcase. He looked at me with an ingratiating smile and explained that he had not been able to finish the dusting the day before, then bade me adieu and slipped out the door before I could gather my wits sufficiently to try to stop him. After this happened a second time, I asked my colleague Ken Sams, who regularly came in to work on Sunday mornings, if he had ever seen this man. Ken said that yes, he had come upon such a person in the common room, and more often than I had. We concluded that the man was perhaps a homeless person seeking a warm place for the night, but we never found out how he had learned of the existence of the room, nor how he had gotten into it, given that it was locked on weekends, as was the whole building.
1 Slightly outside our period was the great ice storm of December 2002. Falling trees and tree limbs cut off the power to much of Chapel Hill for three cold nights and days. The university, however, had its own generator(s?), and some of us spent the days in Davis Library, while others moved to their offices in Murphey Hall for a night or two.