A Life: Gary Murphy, 1949 - 2014; ‘The Kind of Man That Defined Himself Through What He Did’
Wells River — It was never very hard to find Gary Murphy.
Murph just always seemed to be around. Whether it was in Wells River where he grew up, or across the river in Woodsville, or farther south in Bradford Village it was easy to know him and hard to find someone who didn’t.
That was due in part, certainly, to the parade of jobs he had in the northern Upper Valley over the years. Many of them, such as at the Colatina Bakery in Bradford years ago, and most recently in the deli department at Shaw’s supermarket in Woodsville and on the overnight shift at the 24-hour Bradford Jiffy Mart brought him into steady contact with the public.
It was a shock to everyone when that constant presence disappeared suddenly last month after Murph was injured after a fall at his South Ryegate home. He died several days later on July 11 at age 64.
“He fell down the stairs while carrying something and he landed terribly. He was in the hospital for a week,” his brother, Bob Murphy, said.
The injuries and the prognosis were both awful. His neck was broken. Had he survived, Murph would likely have been paralyzed throughout most of his body.
But it was clear from the gathering of some 200 people from all over who packed a church in Ryegate Corner for an Aug. 3 celebration of his life, the tragedy would never form their lasting memory of the man. As remarkable as the number of people who knew Gary Murphy was, the array of ways in which they knew him, and for how long, was also striking.
“Gary and his brother, Dennis, were the altar boys at my wedding in 1961,” said Yvette Tomlinson, 70, of West Topsham. “I was raised in Ryegate and the Murphys lived in Wells River right across from St. Eugene’s Church, said Tomlinson, who retired after more than 30 years at Topsham Telephone Co.
Phil Conrad, in East Haverhill, said, “We were both drinkers, and we ran into each other in different places years ago.”
“One time, you know where the tennis courts are, just outside Wells River Village? Well, we had a football game there and it was rough. Gary told me years later that they fired him from Newman Lumber because he had so many bruises from that game that he couldn’t work,” said Conrad, who’s a turbine operator in Dartmouth College’s heating plant.
Conrad also described other critical ways that Murphy was always around.
“We were in a 12-step program together. We had a meeting in Woodsville and later he started a meeting in South Ryegate. Over time, he got sober and worked to get his driver’s license back, and he didn’t rant and rave about it. He just did it. Gary was always there for me. I had a brother murdered and I lost a son to a drug overdose, and he was always there to support me,” Conrad said.
“Gary had a number of setbacks in his life,” his older brother, Bob — one of Gary’s four siblings — said in an email message. “But it never made him bitter; nor did he try to find someone to blame.
“He was a bright, thoughtful and compassionate man, and the testimonials at his life celebration provided ample evidence of his positive impact on those with whom he associated.”
As a worker in the camera room and prepress department at Upper Valley Press in North Haverhill, former co-worker John Page, of White River Junction, recalls Murphy as “a real good guy, always friendly and joking around. He hung out with everybody.”
And Murphy’s friend and fellow-union president Bill Creamer, of Woodsville, recalled Murphy’s effort toward setting up a lobbying group to try to bring a state-run bank to Vermont. Murphy wanted farmers and others who were struggling economically to be able to get better loan rates for their businesses than were available at private banks.
Creamer is president of Local 301 of the Mailhandlers Union at the White River Junction Post Office. Murphy was president of a pressman’s union at Capital City Press in Berlin, Vt., before that business moved out of state.
“We were both divorced in the early-’90s and our wives were friends. He lost his job, so he just started working two jobs, but he never stopped working for labor issues.”
Creamer said they’d meet on their days off, and Murphy would never let his friend get discouraged, even when federal cutback proposals made it appear for a time that White River Junction’s postal hub would be closed and the job losses would be huge.
“ ‘Don’t give up! Keep fighting!’ he’d tell me. No matter how bad it was, Gary could come up with something positive. I used to stop and see him just to get that positive vibe,” Creamer said.
The Red Sox, progressive politics and workers’ rights were all big items on Murphy’s list. He was, at one time or another, a candidate for the Vermont Senate, governor and, believe it or not, U.S. president.
The first time Tom Hall of Fairlee met Murphy was at Hall’s wedding. Murphy took advantage of being in the gathering at that 1979 event, according to Hall.
“He was passing around his petitions to be governor,” said Hall, who’s been tending bar at the Colatina Exit in Bradford for 32 years.
“While he was still drinking, I was his bartender,” Hall added.
“One thing that wasn’t mentioned at the celebration was what a good softball player Gary was. We were teammates on the Colatina Exit team, and he pitched us to the league title one year. He was 10-0 and was a very good slow-pitch pitcher with a high arc,” Hall said.
Mike Thomas, of the Wells River-Woodsville area, was Murph’s “campaign manager” in that failed presidential bid in the 1980s.
“He got three votes. A couple of years later he ran against (the now-late Vermont Gov. Richard) Snelling. He got 12 or 13 votes that time; he was more serious in that election,” Thomas said.
“I had known him since 1977. We both liked softball and we both liked politics, so we hit it off real well. He would get real, exercised, I guess is the best word, at how politicians lied and he wondered why more people didn’t see that.
“He was not a glory hound,” Thomas said of his friend’s attempts at public office. “He just wanted to get people to listen. He was just a good guy, and he wanted to get out the word.
“And I’ll tell you what else: He was always proud of his son, Gaelan. Whenever I would see him, he was always so proud of his son.”
In an email message, Gaelan Murphy said, “I’ve gotten a lot of cards and a lot of sympathy since my father’s passing. The thing is while there are a lot of implications for me, it’s hardly ‘my’ loss.
“I’ve heard from so many people that knew Gary for so long that it seems implausible that he was still involved in their lives. In many cases though, he was. He’s not just some old friend that passed, for many people he’s someone who was actively involved in their lives. It’s just reflective of the man he was. He wasn’t the kind of man who defined himself through what he owned or who he knew, he was the kind of man that defined himself through what he did.”
Murphy was valedictorian of his small graduating class at Wells River High School in 1967, the final group of graduates before the union school trend ushered in Blue Mountain Union School in Wells River.
“Gary’s activist days began at UVM, where he joined in protests against the Vietnam War,” Bob Murphy said in his email message.
“He had always, in my recollection, been passionately interested in politics. Until the celebration several days ago, I was unaware that he had run for president or governor. Gary was good at getting out and meeting people and he really enjoyed campaigning, I recall.”
In fact, Murphy’s stand against the Vietnam War ended up on display for all to see while he was in college when his arrest at a protest was telecast throughout Vermont on Channel 3.
“He was being hauled away in the paddy wagon,” his sister, Janet Bryer, of Groton, said with a laugh. But the family wasn’t laughing at the time, she said, especially her mom and dad.
“My parents, especially my mother, were horrified. I was in third or fourth grade at the time. I wasn’t bothered by it. But Gary was so sweet. He came home a few days later and he came into my room just before I went to sleep and just apologized, if he had caused me any embarrassment,” she said.
Such a sincere gesture was entirely in keeping with Murphy’s personality, according to Bill Creamer.
“He concerned himself with everybody else,” his friend said, even as he battled his own demons.
“He stayed sober for a very, very, very long time. No matter what hit him, Gary would get back up, dust himself off, and continue. He’s gonna be missed, big time.”
Bob Hookway can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.