Posted on May 28, 2008

A tweedy English professor and a future U.S. congressman forged a friendship at Union in 1948 that lasted four decades and helped shape a legendary political career.

In 1956 Schenectady Mayor Sam Stratton ran a stakeout to bust a gambling ring running in the shadow of City Hall. Stratton took as his partner in that stakeout a former colleague and close friend, Bill Murphy, who was then an associate professor of English at Union.

They used Murphy’s car because Stratton’s beat-up old station wagon would have been easily recognized. The first night they simply observed the comings and goings at a boarded-up building on North Jay Street about a mile from Union’s campus. The second night, they were joined by a TV cameraman and his wife in Murphy’s car.

The night’s events are recounted by writer Wilbur Cross in Samuel S. Stratton: A Story of Political Gumption, published by Heineman in 1964.

Cross quotes Murphy:

“… all at once the lights of [a foreign car] flashed on and it came zooming out of the lot and across the intersection directly toward us. ‘Damn it,’ I said, ‘now they’ve spotted us cold.’ But Sam and the TV man immediately ducked down out of sight, crammed in the narrow space between the front and back seat. I grabbed the wife and we pretended to be necking.

“This could be some thug hired to use violence to protect the gamblers. We drove down the street. The car followed for a while, then apparently decided that we really were a couple of neckers.”

Stratton headed to City Hall and called the police, reporting that he’d been working late and needed a ride home. When a squad car arrived, he got in and asked them to drive to the gambling den and to call for some reserves. Outside, Stratton met Murphy and the pair joined police in a raid that found about 40 men gathered around a craps table. What followed, according to Cross’s book, was a series of botched interviews that yielded only petty gambling charges.

But the raid solidified Stratton’s reputation as a no-nonsense politico who stuck to his campaign promise to clean up the city. And it showed Murphy to be a true and loyal friend who shared Stratton’s sense of adventure.

A political union

Murphy and Stratton met in the fall of 1948 at an opening faculty meeting. Stratton had come to Union and his native Schenectady as a two-year sabbatical replacement for philosophy professors Harold Larrabee and Philip Stanley.

But he had no plans to make a career as an academic, Murphy said. Though he had not lived in the city since childhood, Stratton maintained contact and chose Schenectady as the launching pad for a political career.

When they met, Murphy, starting his third year at Union, had taken a political flier of his own, a run for Congress in which he later described himself as a “sacrificial lamb in a hopeless contest” against a popular Republican incumbent, Bernard “Pat” Kearney. Surveying the political landscape the summer before he arrived at Union, Stratton wrote to Larrabee: “I see that a member of the English department is running for Congress. Is he serious about politics or just a nice guy who’s willing to take the rap?”

Murphy’s new friend soon volunteered to manage his campaign. “I welcomed Sam with open arms,” Murphy said. “He was a whirlwind and a driving campaign manager. We were out ringing doorbells in Canajoharie until the polls closed. Sam wouldn’t go home if there was a possibility of getting one more vote.”

The candidate lost, badly, as Murphy recalls, but the experience gave Stratton a close look at the Republican machine and introduced him to important Democratic leaders.

In 1949, when Democratic leaders sought to reward Murphy with an endorsement for Schenectady City Council, the would-be candidate “made the wisest decision of my life and also the best one. I said, ‘If you want to win, you’ll put Sam up.’” Murphy managed Stratton’s winning campaign.

So began a legendary political career in which Stratton would become Schenectady mayor and later serve 30 years in U.S. House of Representatives. Stratton was elected with ease in the mostly Republican “submarine” district. A rare Democrat with hawkish leanings, he served on the powerful House Armed Services Committee. He made unsuccessful bids for a U.S. Senate seat and the governorship of New York. Stratton died in 1990 at the age of 73.

Shared interests beyond politics

Theirs was a friendship borne of mutual passions for intellectual discourse and politics. Murphy recalls the pair spending hours discussing the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, Stratton’s specialty, or Gulliver’s Travels, which Murphy regards as one of the greatest books ever written. They also spent considerable time surveying opportunities for one or the other’s political ambitions.

Stratton was an indefatigable campaigner who traveled for hours at a time throughout his 150-mile wide district to hold “open-air office hours,” attend a funeral or covered-dish supper, or wander through a county fair to meet with constituents, most of whom he seemed to know by first name. On the way, he would type press releases or take catnaps. Murphy often drove.

By all accounts, Stratton had charisma to spare. “Everybody who met him, liked him,” Murphy said. “He was very articulate and good looking.” Vin DeBaun ’47, a friend of both men who arranged campaign events for Stratton in the Finger Lakes, said, “Sam had a way of lighting up a room.”

Stratton, a natural speaker, was at home on both radio and television; before he got into politics full time, and to make ends meet, he was a news commentator and took on the persona of “Sagebrush Sam,” a harmonica-playing cowboy on a children’s TV show. (“The Republicans thought it was wonderful that Stratton could demean himself this way,” Murphy recalls. “What they didn’t realize was that 10 years later all these kids voted for Sam.”)

Stratton left Union in 1950, the end of his two-year contract as a sabbatical replacement.

Though it was Stratton who rose to political prominence, Murphy was very active. After his loss in the 1948 Congressional race, he made bids for state Senate in 1956, and state Assembly in 1959, both unsuccessful. He was appointed by Stratton in 1956 to fill an unexpired term on the Schenectady County Board of Supervisors. He was a member and chairman of the Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority, which, with Stratton, had instituted a policy of desegregation in the city’s public housing. Murphy served on the New York State Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He was part of the mayor’s “kitchen cabinet,” and later, a part-time staffer in the Congressman’s Schenectady and Washington offices.

Murphy bristles at the suggestion that he was “the man behind Sam Stratton,” as a newspaper story once claimed. “Sam, who was then in Congress, was naturally upset that it should come out [in a newspaper] that I was the Svengali behind his career, and I was angry as hell about it.” So, the next time he was on TV, Stratton said, “I’m my own man and I don’t listen to anyone else.” Murphy suggested the rebuttal and wrote the copy, “perhaps the only thing I ever wrote for Sam Stratton.”

In 1966, Murphy became less active politically to devote time to a scholarly treatment of one of Ireland’s most distinguished families, the Yeats family. In 1978 he published Prodigal Father: The Life of John Butler Yeats, which the next year was one of five finalists for the National Book Award for a biography. He later published a companion book, Family Secrets: William Butler Yeats and His Relatives, which The New York Times described as one of the finest biographies of the Yeats family.

But he always stayed close to Stratton and politics remained a hobby.

A family affair

When Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton last fall presented Murphy with the city’s highest honors, the Patroon Award, many were surprised to hear the mayor refer to Murphy as “Uncle Bill.”

“This is a close family friendship that has endured through the years,” said Brian Stratton.

Indeed the families are still close, spending time at each other’s Schenectady homes and at Murphy’s summer home in Nova Scotia and Stratton’s vacation home in Mariaville Lake, west of Schenectady. The connection continues with Murphy and his wife, Harriet, a retired teacher, as frequent visitors of the mayor and his family.

The younger Stratton had this year expressed interest in the open Congressional seat once held by his father, but decided not to run in mid- February. He said he plans to stay as mayor, and will undoubtedly turn to Murphy for advice. “Bill is a gentle advisor, saying ‘your father would have done this,’” the mayor said. “My father, from whom I got a lot of my gumption, would have been more direct.”

Murphy, recalling Sam Stratton in an entry of the Encyclopedia of Union College History (edited by Wayne Somers ’62), writes, “His wide-ranging mind was both speculative and pragmatic. The public saw mostly the latter side. His friends saw both.”

Stratton, signing the title page of the Cross book for Murphy’s parents, wrote: “To Mr. and Mrs. Murphy—With appreciation and warm thanks for the loan of their able, energetic and talented son, whose advice, counsel and loyal help really made these events possible.”   

Murphy, 91, earned a doctoral degree from Harvard University, where he taught English before serving with the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II. He arrived at Union in 1946 as an assistant professor of English. He was named associate professor in 1948, full professor in 1960, and became the Thomas Lamont Professor in 1978. He retired in 1983 and four years later received the Faculty Meritorious Service Award from the Alumni Council. He and his wife keep homes in Schenectady, Nova Scotia and Florida.