Friday, April 23, 2010

Walter F. Murphy (1929-2010)

Yesterday, I learned of the death of one of my former academic mentors in graduate school, Professor Walter F. Murphy. I only had one course with him, but that was the beginning of a fruitful relationship in which I was the beneficiary of both his brilliance and his unfailing kindness, a great source of support in my quixotic pursuit of an academic career and in my subsequent transition to my present vocation.

By the time our paths crossed in the early 1970s, Professor Murphy had already lived an interesting and accomplished life. After graduating from Notre Dame in 1950, he became an officer in the Marine Corps and saw combat in Korea, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Purple Heart, a Presidential Unit Citation, and three battle stars. After Korea, he taught Government at the United States Naval Academy, then studied at the University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.D. in 1957. He joined the Politics faculty at Princeton in 1958 and became Princeton’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence in 1968, a title he held until his retirement in 1995. During those years, he served as a member of the Committee on Judicial Conduct for the Supreme Court of New Jersey, a State Commissioner of Civil Rights, and on an advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. His first book, Congress and the Court (1962), won the Merriman-Cobbs-Hughes Award from the American Academy of Public Affairs.

Although my primary field of study was political theory, rather than American politics or constitutional law, I was privileged to be employed as his research assistant for part of my time as a graduate student. At that time, voice-mail was far in the future. Professor Murphy, however, was a pioneer in the then quite uncommon practice of using an answering machine to filter his phone calls. When you called him, you heard: “This is Walter Murphy. I have disconnected my phone so that I may work …” Most of the time, he really was working in his study, but he could hear your message. So, if he judged it worthy of an immediate response, he would pick up the phone and interrupt you. As his research assistant, I could count on him almost always picking up the phone when I called – a not inconsequential privilege for a lowly graduate student in the highly hierarchical world of academia!

As his assistant, I helped him research papal ecclesiology in preparation for his 1979 novel The Vicar of Christ, which won a prize from the Chicago Foundation for Literature. The novel’s hero is a certain Declan Walsh, a Marine Medal-of-Honor winner in the Korean War, who goes on to become Chief Justice of the United States. After his wife’s death, Declan Walsh resigns from the Supreme Court and becomes a Trappist monk, but then is surprisingly elected Pope by a deadlocked conclave.

May the angels lead him into paradise; may the martyrs come to welcome him and take him to the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem.

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