Family, friends and students of longtime Riverhead teacher Monnie Sue Murtha described her as someone whose compassion, energy and optimism touched everyone she taught, even beyond the walls of her classroom.
Murtha, of Baiting Hollow, died of heart failure on Aug. 27 at East End Hospice’s Kanas Center in Quiogue. She was 84.
"I still miss her, but I was lucky to have her for so long," said Riverhead Town Councilwoman Catherine Kent, one of her daughters and also a Baiting Hollow resident.
Murtha taught for 22 years in the Riverhead school district, including as an elementary school teacher at Riley Avenue School in Calverton, from which she retired in 1991. Her former students said Murtha made the greatest impact on their lives in that role.
“She really encouraged me in that way and made me feel very capable,” said former Riley Avenue student Heather Won Tesoriero, 44, of Manhattan.
Tesoriero said Murtha helped her discover a passion for writing in the first grade, which led to Tesoriero reporting for news outlets including Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal and becoming an Emmy-winning producer at CBS.
She even thanked Murtha in the forward of her newly published Penguin Random House nonfiction book, “The Class”, for inspiring her to write. Tesoriero said she was “heartbroken” Murtha died just before the publication of the book but said her first-grade teacher's legacy would live on in every child she taught.
“She made each child feel very seen and heard and understood," Tesoriero said. "She was really dialed into the individual essence of every child."
Born on Feb. 13, 1934, in Walcott, Arkansas, Murtha attended what is now Central Methodist University in Fayette, Missouri, where she met and married her late husband, Rod Murtha, of Williston Park in 1952. They remained married until his death in 2002. Murtha graduated from Southampton College with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and English. She also received a master’s degree in liberal studies from Stony Brook University.
Riley Avenue School math teacher Linda Wallace, 44, of Riverhead, said Murtha’s nurturing and group-oriented teaching style inspired her to become a teacher. Wallace has taught at Riley Avenue School for 20 years.
“When she taught me, I felt confident. I felt loved. I felt safe, and she gave me those things,” Wallace said. “The feeling she gave me as a student I want to pass on to my students.”
Doug Murtha, 52, of Dallas, a nephew of Monnie Murtha, said his aunt blended her warm Southern charm and sense of humor with a tough, no-nonsense New York attitude and “leveraged that into this endearing part of her character.”
Even when caring for her husband and her late mother, Pearlie Wilcoxson, when they had illnesses, Doug Murtha said, his aunt never lost her spirit.
“She had to weather some tough stuff, and through all that, she was always projecting optimism and positivity, and I think that’s what most folks took away from her,” he said.
Along with Kent, Murtha is survived by another daughter, Cheryl Hewkin of Baiting Hollow; a son, Bryan Murtha of Owings, Maryland; six grandchildren and one great-grandson.
Services were held Sept. 1 at Baiting Hollow Congregational Church in Baiting Hollow. Murtha was buried in the church cemetery.