Letter from Campus: Salute to the Old Guard

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

Jim Murphy died September 2, 2002. There’s an announcement of his death in this issue, but, as is the case with all obituaries, it only tells part of the story.

Jim Murphy,a 1947 ND graduate, came to work for Notre Dame in 1952. He was the University’s chief public relations officer when I came to work here in 1977. He was one of the nicest, kindest gentlemen I’ve ever known. He retired in 1992, and his final years were eventually consumed by a struggle with Parkinson’s that was both gallant and heartbreaking.

I went to Jim’s funeral a few days later, thinking mostly of Jim and his family as I walked across a sunny campus to Sacred Heart Basilica. It was there, sitting in a pew near the back, that the full significance of this passing autumn occurred to me.

Father Hesburgh, CSC, ‘39 gave the eulogy. Walt Collins ’51, former editor of this magazine, gave one of the readings. Across the aisle were Jim Frick ’51, ’73Ph.D. and Bill Sexton, former vice presidents for University relations. They had been in charge — first one and then the other — of the University’s public relations and fundraising efforts for 50 years. Five of the six pallbearers have been colleagues of mine at Notre Dame — Dick Conklin ’59M.A., Jim Gibbons ’53, Chuck Lennon ’61, ’62M.A., Bruce Harlan ’49, ’80M.A. and Denny Moore ’70. Each has worked here in University relations for decades.

Collectively this group has provided — for 50 years — the words and photographs, the leadership and judgment that have made Notre Dame’s institutional advancement efforts a model of excellence and care. Largely because of the group’s good work and expertise, few institutions in the world have the presence Notre Dame enjoys. For five decades these men were largely responsible for that persona, the face Notre Dame showed the world. All but two have retired in recent years; Jim Murphy is the first of the old guard to pass away. His funeral signaled the twilight of an era.

I have long admired these people as consummate professionals. Whether planning formal dinners for donors, orchestrating fund-raising campaigns or creating the materials that defined Notre Dame, they were the best at what they did. They were the experts to whom others came for advice, and they performed with integrity and class, loyalty and wisdom, humility and humor.

Through the years I came to be equally impressed with them as people. They have exemplified what is meant by “the Notre Dame family.” They have treated everyone — benefactor, student, U.S. president, trustee, support staff — as individual persons deserving the same respect and attention. They knew waitresses and custodians by first name, could ask about their children while arranging luncheons for heads of state.

Gracious egalitarians, they treated the many University employees as partners in a common enterprise, recognizing that some just happened to have different responsibilities. They appreciated all those who contributed to the common good, and they habitually expressed their gratitude for those gifts.

These were the men whose company I joined — along with Carl Magel ‘67, ’68M.A., Dan Reagan ’76, Jim Roemer ’51, ’55J.D. and Pam Spence — for weekly department head meetings when I became editor of Notre Dame Magazine almost eight years ago. Around that table was very little ego, virtually no flexing of territoriality or power. They started meetings with a prayer. They discussed a wide range of University issues, but they also talked about who would go to the funeral when a benefactor had died, what could be done for a faculty widow, a staff member’s son. Twice they gathered money for housekeepers whose uninsured houses had burned down. They tended to employees suffering from AIDS, depression, alcoholism, tragedy or illness. Even though they gave their love and their lives to Notre Dame, they also served on the boards of community civic organizations; they volunteered to help those less fortunate.

In doing this they set a tone, established a culture of caring and giving. They became friends, got to know each other’s family, were there for each other in good times and bad. In all they did, they showed that people come first. They helped Jim Murphy through his final days.

Jim Murphy had a wry and quiet sense of humor. He was also very sharp, incisive. “Don’t squander the mystique,” he would say, his eyes twinkling, reminding everyone to hold fast to the spirit of this place. Jim Murphy (like others in the old guard whose time has come and whose organization has now been divided and restructured) demonstrated an ideal — that Notre Dame is not only an educational institution and a place to work, but it is also a way of life.

Their legacy is a challenge to us all.

Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine.