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Profile: A man of letters

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

A few years ago, some readers of the Coastal Observer questioned whether prolific letter writer Terry Munson was real.

Some of the paper’s more conservative subscribers had become so apoplectic over Munson’s opinions about God and country, they began wondering whether Munson was a pen name for editors stirring their own pot.

“I keep being surprised that the paper would risk part of its customer base to print my stuff,” Munson said during an interview at the home he shares with his wife, Pat, in Heritage Plantation. On the contrary, some look forward to his letters just to disagree. “All my letters have a statement about the value of thinking through problems and analyzing them before you put your thoughts on paper,” he said. “How much better would things be if we apply the thought processes?”

Munson said he never replies to letters taking the opposite view. “I almost never get an argument back on any of my facts,” he said. “It’s just what a terrible person this guy is. How could anybody that bad end up in South Carolina? That doesn’t bother me at all.” He got a reply in his home mail once to a letter printed in the newspaper. “The letter said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about, Munson. We’re just lucky we have smart people to do our thinking for us.’ I rested my case for everything I was trying to say.”

Munson prefers reason to emotion. “So many people who write to the paper write about their emotions,” he said. “I don’t know that there is any general interest in how I feel about things. The only thing that sets us apart from the animal kingdom is we have a thing called the prefrontal cortex that allows us to reason and analyze a problem, think about it in different ways, empathize with somebody else’s problem and take all that into context. My whole message, if you look at everything I’ve written in the last 13 years, is about trying to get people to think about subjects in ways that enlighten the discussion, not tell them I feel really strongly about this issue because that doesn’t get us anywhere.”

That doesn’t mean he’s not irritating to those with different opinions. These days, Munson is campaigning against drilling for oil off the South Carolina coast. His former ally in a fight to prevent a Wal-Mart from coming to Pawleys Plaza, Bill Otis, mayor of Pawleys Island, has remained non-committal to drilling opponents.

“Now I have great difficulty understanding, with his position on that little island out there, why he would think that drilling would add to the quality of life of his constituents,” Munson said. “I just don’t get that.” Munson is in the process of writing to all of the island’s registered voters that they need to be concerned about their property values if oil drilling is allowed. “My house won’t be worth $100 if oil drilling comes to the coast of South Carolina,” he said. “Who would want to vacation here, retire here if this is an oil community? Wherever there is oil, there is crud.”

Munson doesn’t deny that he occasionally stakes out an outlandish position for the sake of argument but works hardest at his reasoning. “It’s actually an enjoyable process for me to sit down at the computer and think through those issues and try and come up with the strongest reason why I stand where I do,” he said.

Munson said he grew up in a very political family, active in conservative causes. His brother has been a Maryland state senator for 34 years and is “one of the most conservative people I know,” Munson said.

The Munsons moved to Heritage Plantation from the Washington, D.C., suburbs in 2002 when they retired. They have a unique view of the world and the nation. Both worked for the National Security Agency. “I started out as a spy,” Munson said. He listened to Chinese conversations — “working the China problem,” he called it — for five years. “NSA does electronic spying, listening to signals and trying to collect data,” he said. “We get insulted that people are trying to get intelligence from the United States, but we are intercepting everything in the world all the time.” Things were different in the 1960’s, Munson said. It was absolutely illegal to spy on American citizens.

He left the National Security Agency after five years to work for IBM as a systems consultant on the first big main frames. “It was a great time to be there,” he said because he loved writing. “We had great engineers, brilliant minds, none of whom could write very well,” he said. “Our main customer was the federal government, and you don’t sell anything to the federal government without a big proposal. I ended up working on all these proposals, trying to turn their brilliant thoughts into presentable English. That was a nice way to make a living. We had a writing problem, and I solved the writing problem.”

Munson retired from IBM and, since his wife was still working at NSA, took at job with Boeing’s computer division at the Goddard Space Flight Center near his home in Maryland. They both retired in 2002 and followed some friends to Heritage who had discovered the Waccamaw Neck on a boat trip from Annapolis, Md., to Sarasota, Fla. “We fell in love with the place,” Munson said. “There are not many prettier places.”

His first letter to the editor 13 years ago complained about the U.S. Postal Service introducing a stamp honoring the holiest day in the Muslim calendar year, Eid, the end of Ramadan. “We had just been bombed by 19 Muslims from Saudi Arabia,” he said. “I thought that was a little quick to be getting politically correct.”

It was during the George W. Bush administration that Munson noticed a change in political discussion. “I grew up in an environment where Republicans and Democrats thought entirely differently but they fought their battles on the basis of who had the strongest ideas, who had the best ideas,” he said. “Sometime, early in George Bush’s administration, that fight stopped, and people said I believe this because this is the way I believe and people agree with me. That stopped making sense to me. I have written a lot of things about that.”

Munson defends his work for the government and says he is surprised by some federal retirees here. “Friends have moved here who have never gotten a dollar in their lives from anywhere but the federal government and they despise the federal government,” he said. “That’s beyond my comprehension. I always appreciated every dollar I got from the federal government. When you work at NSA you work as hard as you work anywhere else. You feel like you earn your money, not like you’re on the dole.”

Munson often writes about religion and its impact on thinking. “I’m an atheist,” he said, “and I find myself in my own judgment to be as concerned and empathetic with other people and trying to understand other people as a lot of Christians these days who are out thumping on Bibles. That bothers me a lot, so I’ve written a fair amount on religion.”

Munson has had to give up his favorite sport, tennis, after developing a limp that doctors can’t explain. He said he never got good enough at golf to enjoy it, but was a natural at ping-pong. “A Forrest Gump kind of thing,” he called his talent. A trumpet sits on a stand in his sun room. He doesn’t play often enough to keep his lip in shape but will pick it up every few weeks and think about his days in the Hagerstown High marching band.

Munson and his wife lived in Taiwan for a couple years, and their house reflects a Chinese influence with screens and a case of figurines and replicas of little opium jars painted with a single pig’s bristle from the inside. “That borders on miraculous,” Munson said. He’s been teaching Chinese to children at the Pawleys Island Civic Club Day Care Center.

That all goes to answer the question. Yes, Terry Munson is real.

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