Murray Blumenthal: Renaissance Man
By the front door, Alicia Blumenthal keeps a wondrous photo of Murray her husband for more than 50 years, standing in front of their Georgetown home. With his arms spread expansively wide, he gives the impression he could bear hug the world.
From the time he was a kid growing up in a salt-of-the-earth family—his father was an iron worker who helped construct the United Nations building—his precociousness stirred within him a passion for knowledge, but more so for people.
After serving in Europe in World War II, Murray dedicated himself to promoting human justice through political activism and as a professor of law. Wending his way west, Murray settled in Georgetown where his indomitable spirit and infectious smile made him, over a span of three decades, an icon within the community, where a trek to the post office oftentimes became a minor adventure for townspeople due to the potential of their being mentally accosted by Murray.
Murray died on April 13 2006, but not before leaving footprints distinct and true and leaving this place, as each of us should, a far better place than he found it.
Entering combat in January 1945, Murray was among the first to witness the horror that awaited the Allies as they moved through a defeated Nazi Germany. Doing “sweeps” through the towns and cities, going door to door, and coming upon the ghastly sites of the concentration camps, Murray saw firsthand man’s capacity for evil. During that tour, he survived a roll-over accident in an Army jeep. The lingering back pain from it would serve as a constant reminder of his experiences for the remainder of his life.
Murray had his way with people that showed most vividly in the causes for which he fought, literally. Long before the Civil Rights Movement exploded onto the national consciousness, Murray was in the forefront, participating in a 1948 sit-in at a segregated restaurant in Dallas. “He said it was the moment of his life he was most frightened,” recalls Alicia, and that was after his tour of duty in WW II.
“The Warlords,” fellow World War II vets in Las Cruces, included old friends Chuck Miles and Felix Pfaeffel, a former Wehrmacht soldier who, at 16 years old, deserted the German army. A short time ago, Murray had learned of the incredible story of courageous German citizens who risked their lives to bring food and water to prisoners on railroad cars when the SS attempted to empty the concentration camps. Murray wrote to them, and they in turn wrote back, each acknowledging and honoring the valor of the other.
Malcolm Schaefer remembers him as a “Renaissance Man,” an ent, the mythological wise trees of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings that swayed steadily even in the fiercest gales.
Throughout his life, Murray made music both figuratively and literally. At the Julliard School of Music in New York City, Murray became an accomplished trombonist, even playing guest trombone with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops on a tour through Denver in the early 1970s. “One of his proudest moments,” recalls his son Tom Blumenthal.
Prior to moving to Colorado in the late 1960s, the Blumenthals lived in Connecticut, where they got their first immersion into historical preservation. It was in Historic Wethersfield, in 1633 the first Connecticut settlement, that he developed his philosophy of preservation. “A town is more than the buildings,” says Alicia, citing Murray’s philosophy. “There is richness to it because of the people. Murray believed that historic preservation is at its best when it enhances the quality of the town along with its people.”
Murray understood that a town evolves, that it cannot be a single snapshot of one time. That perspective found Murray not always in agreement with others as Georgetown sought to reclaim its historical roots, but in the end Alicia says he and his old sparring partner Ron Neely made their peace, having gone for coffee shortly before their deaths that were separated by only a few months.
Tom says, “He was of the scholarly Jewish tradition,” and that showed with his immense library of books, magazines, and other assorted literature.
Dustin Schaefer tells how he was just blown away by the copious amount of literature Murray had stored in his attic, as if he never threw away a single copy. “And he read them all!” he says in amazement.
Murray’s degree in psychology and career as a professor of law at the University of Denver Law School gave Murray ample basis to explore the mysteries of humanity—why we do what we do. He had a keen mind for the law, once saying, “Getting a hold of the law was like getting a hold of the ears of a wolf.” Yet, for 30 years he trained a generation of lawyers teaching how they might get a hold of the wolf’s ears.
Tom recalls Judge Foster, realizing that Murray was his father, telling him, “Murray Blumenthal taught a couple generations of lawyers to get along.” That was classic Murray: disagree all you want, but never lose sight of the humanity of each other.
Tom remembers his dad always talking about human motivation. He was a young guy during the 1960s when the war protests and race riots were at their zenith. Tom looked to his father, his mentor, to try to make sense of it. By the time Senator Eugene McCarthy made his run for the presidency in 1968, Tom was hooked. He was following in his dad’s footsteps.
An art aficionado, Alicia recalls Murray exclaiming after she opened her gallery in Denver, “Oh my God, you’re going to be successful!” Over the decades, they rubbed elbows with legendary people locally and across the American scene: Georgia O’Keefe and Frank Lloyd Wright; Bill Mauldin and Pat Oliphant; Polly Chandler, Bill Geiger, and Ernie Baker. Perhaps, the most honored and treasured personage he met was Dr. Martin Luther King in Chicago.
But it wasn’t the rich and famous that was of ultimate importance to Murray. Alicia tells about the sabbatical they took to London in 1984. The camera took little aim at the usual sites such as Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. “It was the people he was most interested in—street sweepers, musicians on the corner,” she muses.
Maybe that was the reason Murray was most proud of being made an honorary citizen of Silver Plume in 1976, having been one of the Silver Plume Silver Cornet Band in their drive to raise funds for the fire department. An ever-involved member of the Clear Creek community, Murray held membership in the Old Miners and the Masons, and served as Democratic Party Chair. And never forgetting his military service, Murray was very active in veterans’ affairs.
Murray was a gentle soul, but one with whom you were in trouble if you tried to “gentle” him. Sarah Kaminski says, “He always made you feel like you were the most important person. No matter how bad of a day you had, he made you just feel good.” She laughs about how he would each day take on a new chore: teaching their bird a new song. She also tells of his propensity for driving not just slowly, but at a snail’s pace, and how in frustration she blew by him one time assuming he was some slow-poke tourist from New Mexico. Moments later, up pulls her smiling neighbor Murray with a knowing gleam in his eye.
In the end, Murray simply accepted reality, the inevitability of his own demise. A simple fall was taking its toll. He understood his time had come, and it was time to move on so to make room for another. There would be no fussing, crying, or regrets—or reminiscing. His eye for the beautiful remained clear as his nurses can attest. His comrades, the Warlords regaled him, and at the final gathering, the El Paso Brass Quintet honored his life, the man and his passion.
When Thoreau encouraged each of us to suck the marrow out of life, he surely had Murray Blumenthal in mind. Blazing his own swath through life, Murray took to heart Thoreau’s point: “How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!” Despite having a deep appreciation and affection for the past, Murray understood life is for the living. He undoubtedly saw his share of death of the most horrific kinds. But he kept that within himself.
Murray lived Thoreau’s dictum: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet a success unexpected in common hours.” Murray did, and like Thoreau, he too was “at least a remote descendent of that heroic race of men of whom there is a tradition, sitting here on the shore of his Ithaca, a fellow wanderer and survivor of Ulysses.”
I commented to Alicia that she and Murray had seen and been through a lot. For a second she thought then said with a smile, “It was a good run—we didn’t miss much.” Indeed. We should all be so fortunate.