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Peter C. Murrell Jr., 63, founding dean of Loyola's School of Education, dies

Peter C. Murrell Jr., 63, founding dean of Loyola's School of Education, dies
Peter Murrell (Baltimore Sun)

Peter C. Murrell Jr., an educational psychologist and professor of urban education at Loyola University Maryland, where he was founding dean of the School of Education, died of pancreatic cancer Oct. 25 at his home in Boston. He was 63.

"Peter was a trailblazer when it came to urban education and was widely respected across the country. He was a giant in his field and known all over," said Joshua Smith, who succeeded Dr. Murrell in 2011 as dean of the School of Education.

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"He applied several concepts to urban education — schools were community centers where people helped make children's dreams come true. They were the people teachers served," said Dr. Smith.

"It was a grass-roots approach to education," he said. "He didn't write about it. He went out and did it. The community school movement was a real place where people could grow and develop."

"He was a man of very slight build, but when he entered he really filled a room," said Cheryl Moore-Thomas, associate professor of school counseling at Loyola. "He was so inspirational. He believed race, culture and social justice were issues that came into play in the classroom."

The son of Dr. Peter Charles Murrell Sr., the first African-American dentist in Milwaukee, and Eva Ruth Greenlee Murrell, a teacher, Peter Charles Murrell Jr. was born in Cheyenne, Wyo.

He was raised in Milwaukee and graduated from Boys Technical High School.

In 1974, he earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and a master's degree in experimental cognitive psychology in 1980 from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

In 1987, he earned his doctorate in urban education and educational psychology from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

Before coming to Loyola in 2008, Dr. Murrell had a varied career in education. He taught middle and high school in Milwaukee's public schools, as well as a college access program at Marquette University.

Dr. Murrell was named chair of the psychology department at Milwaukee Area Technical College and was an assistant professor of psychology and education at Alverno College, a liberal arts institution in Milwaukee.

He was an associate professor of education at Wheelock College and Northeastern University in Boston at the time he joined the Loyola faculty.

A resident of Homeland and Boston, he served as dean of Loyola's School of Education from 2008 until its official launch in fall 2009, "having shaped the school's vision to address complex issues facing urban education to ensure all children have a right to a quality education," according to a Loyola statement announcing his death.

"This vision established a foundation for the extensive opportunities for community engagement and collaboration afforded to Loyola undergraduate and graduate education students," said the statement.

"He taught us that we can't wait for the politicians and administrators to make changes. It's the teachers who make changes," said Dr. Smith.

In 2011, Dr. Murrell, Jessica Strauss and Maritza Dominguez founded the Alliance for Community Teachers and Schools.

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"Peter was so dear to me," said Ms. Strauss, a social worker who is executive director of the alliance. "He was a very rare man, a powerful thinker, and it was always about the children and public education."

In a 2009 letter to The Baltimore Sun, Dr. Murrell wrote: "We need to work collaboratively, as a community, to take aim at the insidious notion that children of color and children of lower socioeconomic backgrounds are predestined to fail."

In 2014, Dr. Murrell and Ms. Strauss wrote an op-ed piece in The Sun regarding workers' compensation claims made by teachers for injuries inflicted by children.

"The chaotic conditions described as dangerous for teachers characterize the very places we expect our children to learn," they wrote. "Daily stressors inherent in inequality, racism and crime interrupt the learning process. In many cases, these stressors are compounded by school conditions and practices."

The authors observed that "exposure to domestic and neighborhood trauma and loss affects learning." They said a "school culture that is safe for teachers is one that cultivates successful and healthy children."

"He had this passion for urban education, and his belief was that this could be best shared by inspiring all of us," said Dr. Moore-Thomas.

"Even when he was ill, he continued to advise through emails, and he'd phone in for meetings," she said. "He had a passion and was committed to the work that we were doing.

"He believed that we moved forward by walking the road, and for us to continue walking the road is the best way to honor him," she said.

In a eulogy, Ms. Strauss wrote that Dr. Murrell strove to establish a teaching environment that would "lift up each person's gifts and nurture them actively — with focus, with a unique kind of acknowledgment that encourages growth."

"This was a spiritual commitment for Peter — not explicitly religious but akin to 'the God in me sees the God in you.'"

Of his life's work, Dr. Murrell wrote in a 2009 article in Loyola Magazine: "To be a good teacher, you have to acquire a deep understanding of human development in different social and cultural contexts, and to develop a capacity to bring out the best in every pupil, regardless of their current level of academic proficiency or school readiness."

A memorial service will be held from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at Wheelock College, 43 Hawse St., Boston.

Dr, Murrell is survived by his wife of 30 years, Terry Meier, a professor of education at Wheelock College; a daughter, Anya Meier of New York City; and a stepson, Peter Meier of Milwaukee.

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