Letter from campus: We Lived and Died with Him

Author: Laura Rompf '02

We walked from Zahm Hall in silence and stood at the Grotto, the glow of candles lighting the night while a mix of snow and rain drizzled down. We prayed for a miracle for our friend and classmate Conor Murphy.

Conor had been diagnosed a year earlier with leukemia and word had come earlier in the day that he had contracted pneumonia for the second time in two months. Chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant had severely compromised his immune system, and doctors said the treatment for pneumonia would kill him. His family chose to forego the treatment, so without a miracle, the morning was certain to bring grim news.

Conor’s best friends slowly moved to the front of the crowd and wrapped their arms tightly around each other. Warm tears flowed down their cold-reddened cheeks.

These men had stood by Conor the entire year of his illness. They made trips to his home in Cleveland. They shaved their heads to show solidarity after he lost his hair to chemotherapy. They rallied support last March for a campus bone marrow donor registration drive that attracted more than 600 volunteers, mostly students.

Before our trek to the Grotto, Zahm Hall had hosted a special Mass to pray for Conor. About 300 students squeezed into the dorm chapel. They occupied every pew, sat on the altar, stood in the aisles, crowded into the back and spilled out the door.

Students from all across campus missed Conor. Some had worked with him in Student Government or with the College Democrats; his dream was to become president of the United States. Some were friends from classes, dates for dances, and people who had worked with him on a Campus Ministry retreat team. Others were mere acquaintances. Conor’s personality was unforgettable and dynamic; his sarcasm, wit and sense of humor instantly attracted people.

Conor’s condition was known well around campus, especially within the junior class. Students studying in LaFortune, hanging out in the dorms, and eating in the dining hall talked about him and wondered how he was doing. Right up to the end.

At the Grotto, we lit candles and hoped he would somehow win his latest battle against the leukemia. But the following morning, January 31, 2001, Conor passed away.

Three days later, the news of Conor’s death was still sinking in as buses pulled up to Library Circle. Chartered by the University, they were made available for transporting anyone interested in attending the memorial Mass for Conor at his alma mater, Saint Ignasius High School in Cleveland. Although the sun would not be up for another hour, more than 40 students waited at the curb dressed in their best clothes.

The ride on the bus took six hours; others drove their own cars, creating a total contingent from Notre Dame of 150 people. More than a thousand people filed into the high school gym for the service.

Father Jim Lies, CSC, former rector of Zahm Hall, was one of those who spoke. He told of Conor’s faith and said that when Conor was first diagnosed with leukemia the student’s immediate concern was for his friends. He wondered how he would tell them. How would they react?

“I don’t think that’s the first thing I would have thought of upon learning that sort of news,” the priest said. “And yet Conor did, because that’s who he was.”

During communion, an Irish quartet sang traditional Irish ballads, then Conor’s father offered a reflection, describing the dignity Conor exhibited throughout his life. Conor’s best friend from high school — who visited him every day in the hospital over the summer — spoke of Conor’s dedication to his family. She said his home and family were the center of his universe, the starting point of every journey.

As the service concluded, a Saint Ignatius student with dark hair and red tie stood alone and played the ¬_Notre Dame Victory March_ on a trumpet. The only sounds in the background were soft sobs and sniffles. Dormmates from Zahm, as pall bearers, then slowly pushed his coffin out of the gym and lifted it carefully into the hearse.

Nearly a month has passed since Conor died. In Badin Hall hang two campaign posters for the Student Government presidential elections. They have one idea in common: in Conor Murphy’s memory, each ticket pledges to raise money for leukemia research or host an annual bone marrow drive.

Conor Murphy will never be president of the United States, but his struggle left an imprint on Notre Dame and his memory will live on through the efforts of those he touched.

Laura Rompf, a friend of Conor Murphy, is a junior majoring in government with a concentration in journalism, ethics and democracy, and an assistant news editor at The Observer.