Kalispell lawyer recounts life’s adventures

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Don Murray in the library of the law office where he works at Hash, O’Brien, Biby & Murray in Kalispell on Thursday. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

The adage that a smile can be infectious is true for Don Murray.

The Kalispell lawyer and outgoing school board trustee for Kalispell Public Schools said it’s probably in his genes.

“My mother’s nickname was ‘happy, healthy, hearty Helen,’ so I think if I have a sunny disposition it’s genetic,” Murray said –– of course –– with a smile.

Murray, 66, is married to Barbara, whom he calls “the tower of strength in the family.” They have been married for 42 years and have one grandchild and two adult children — Mike, who is a local musician, and Abby, who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Murray met his wife in college. Both are originally from Detroit, Michigan.

“She noticed my penmanship. I sat in front of her in class,” Murray said chuckling.

Although Murray completed his undergraduate degree in economics he wasn’t too keen on working in that field.

“I majored in economics. You know, you just have to pick something at some point. I had a professor I really liked in economics so I chose that,” Murray said with a slight shrug.

It wasn’t until he had more life experience that he realized his interests were in law.

Before Murray returned to school to study law, he had traveled abroad, married, moved from Michigan to Montana and worked in a plant.

How he ultimately arrived in Montana was something that happened over time.

“What had probably changed my life is when I was in college, I spent my junior year in Austria at the University of Vienna and that’s where I got exposed to mountains. That’s where I learned to ski. I think that’s when I fell in love with mountains,” he said.

After completing his undergraduate degree he traveled to Australia and New Zealand for a couple of years. In Queenstown, New Zealand, he became friends with a man who turned out to be from Billings. They hiked, skied and explored New Zealand’s largest glacier, Tasman Glacier.

“He told me ‘you would like Northwest Montana.’ So anyway I chose it on a map. [I thought] that little Whitefish looked good. There’s a lake there, and a ski hill and rivers to fish,” said Murry, who has fly-fished since he was child.

He made the move and told his soon-to-be wife “let’s go get married and move to Montana.”

At the time, she was teaching in Michigan and would visit him over the summer, but when she would go back to her job Murray said, “I couldn’t live without her.”

They got married and she got a teaching job in Whitefish while he worked for Plum Creek in the fiberboard plant.

“When I started there they gave me a broom. It was so new then you readily got seniority. It wasn’t long and I was operating some pretty sophisticated equipment out there,” Murray said.

He had been out of college for five years when he decided to go back to study law.

So what got him into law?

“‘Petrocelli,’” Murray said grinning — a TV show. “It’s about a guy, he’s a criminal defense lawyer. His wife is his secretary. He drives an old beat-up Chevy truck.”

He also said the logic of law appealed to him.

“If you are a sequential thinker, law makes sense,” Murray said.

The second time around at college he graduated with honors from the University of Montana.

“For first time I was a committed student. I was grown up — not a slacker kid anymore. I had become an adult somewhere in there,” Murray said smiling.

He has been a lawyer for 37 years. Murray practices law in various areas and has done a lot of work in environmental cases involving utilities and water.

“I do like environmental things. I’ve done a lot of water law over the years, but it’s never been something I’ve done to the exclusion of other things,” Murray said. “I’m still working on a case that involves that bridge down in Bigfork. It’s a bridge to a little island down on the north shore of Flathead Lake, so I’ve represented a citizens group that thinks that bridge was permitted in violation of our state Lakeshore Protection Act.”

When he’s not working, Murray enjoys fly-fishing, hiking and hunting, and dedicating time to serving on boards of different organizations involved in law, schools and the environment.

He is currently on the Montana Justice Foundation board of directors, an organization that works to provide people with equal access to legal help. In the past he was also named Northwest Montana’s pro bono lawyer of the year.

“If they’re [lawyers] only accessible to rich people, that wasn’t the way it was meant to be,” Murray said. “If it [the legal system] doesn’t work for everybody it doesn’t work for anybody.”

He is a past president of the State Bar of Montana and past chairman of the American Bar Association Professionalism Committee. He has also served on the Flathead Land Trust board, an organization he has been involved with for about 30 years.

Currently he is a trustee on Kalispell Public Schools board of trustees, but will bow out at the end of the school year. Total, he has served about 17 years on the school board.

“As I’ve gotten older the importance of education has grown and evolved for me,” Murray said. “I really found it gratifying.”

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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