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State Parks Director Shows Personal Side in His Poetry


SACRAMENTO — There once was a man from L.A., state parks were his passion by day. In his spare time, he wrote poems in rhyme. And continues to do so today.

For those taxpaying skeptics who view government bureaucrats as soulless paper pushers, we present Donald W. Murphy, director of California's state parks department--and a published poet.

Now 46, Murphy took to poetry as a boy of 7. He has been in its grip ever since, using the craft to explore life's mysteries and express his love of language.

Sometimes Murphy writes of nature, as befits the steward of California's 264 parks. But his preferred topic is one that has inspired and tested many a writer before him: love.

Next month, Murphy's book--"Love Vignettes"--will appear in selected bookstores throughout the state, and the parks chief will promote it with a series of readings from Sacramento to Brentwood.

The book is a collection of 74 sonnets, reflecting a man who, in his publicist's words, "is not afraid to share his deepest feelings of pain, loneliness, lust, romance and despair."

I knew that I should not have trusted my

Emotions when first I looked into your

Eyes; that the day'd come when I'd know they'd lie.

For now you have gone off to another,

And I am left only these sad rhymes to

Repeat an often repeated tale of woe.

The poems are, indeed, frank and revealing--especially for a gubernatorial appointee afloat in the treacherous currents of politics. Though many are conceptual in origin, others fly forth from the passions, sorrows and anguished moments that have fluttered through his life.

And so it must be, Murphy said, for poetry to work:

"Unless you're willing as an artist to be self-revealing and naked, you will not be successful," said Murphy, who is striking for his warm sonorous voice and gentlemanly bearing. "You have to speak in terms that are personal, in ways that will touch people."

The collection--released by his wife's publishing company--has yet to receive a formal critical review. But one noted Los Angeles writer, award-winning poet David St. John, praised Murphy for the mere act of publishing.

"In many other countries, it's considered a mark of one's education and culture to publish a volume of poems--and it's very important that public figures do so," said St. John, director of USC's creative writing program. For any person to take that step here is "a cause for celebration"--no matter the level at which he writes, St. John said.

Aside from his poetic credentials, Murphy is a Sacramento standout in other ways. He was the first parks chief selected from among rank-and-file park employees, and he is an African American--one of just two black department directors in the Wilson administration.

Appointed in 1991, his six years as California's guardian of parks have been a grind, dominated by sagging budgets and a staff demoralized by cuts and deteriorating facilities. By one estimate, state parks suffer from basic maintenance woes that would cost $75 million to fix--excluding the cost of rehabilitating historic buildings.

His fans say Murphy has weathered the tough times with agility and grace, fighting off potential park closures and holding the line on visitor-fee increases through frugality and an innovative management approach.

"His strength has been accepting reality--making lemonade out of lemons," said Marcia Hobbs, a veteran member of the State Park and Recreation Commission who calls Murphy "terrific."

Even critics acknowledge that Murphy's shortcomings can largely be blamed on economic realities and on a boss--Gov. Pete Wilson--consumed by other priorities.

"The fact is the parks department has always been the poor stepchild in this administration," said Darryl Young, chief consultant to the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Wildlife. "It would have been nice if Don Murphy had stood up and yelled louder on behalf of parks, but maybe he's done the best he could given the circumstances."

Before his appointment, Murphy was superintendent of Big Sur State Park. When he took over as director, the department was reeling from budget cuts--and facing more grim times given the economic downturn.

Under pressure to streamline, he launched a major reorganization, cutting 180 positions through attrition and consolidating administrative divisions and regional offices. In all, the moves saved about $10.3 million.

But the shake-up had other costs, namely a sense of trust and connectedness within what had been called "the state park family."

"Before the reorganization, people went above and beyond the call of duty because they felt emotionally attached to parks and our mission," said one seasoned park superintendent who asked not to be named. "A lot of people don't feel that way any more."

Murphy acknowledges that the decisions were "upsetting" for his staff, but defends them: "The alternative was to let the Legislature step in and slash and burn."

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