Posted on Sep 26, 2008

Prof. William M. Murphy

William M. Murphy, the Thomas Lamont Research Professor of Ancient and Modern Literature, died Friday, Sept. 26, 2008 at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady. He was 92.

Hours before he died, Murphy was welcoming visitors, discussing politics and other news of the day with his characteristic intellect and sharp wit.

Plans were under way on Friday for a memorial service in the spring, according to his wife Harriet “Tottie” Murphy.

A teacher who considered Gulliver’s Travels the greatest book ever written and a scholar who won prominence as biographer of the family of Irish poet William Butler Yeats, Murphy taught in Union’s English department from 1946 until his retirement in 1983.

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.

He had a lifelong passion for politics, and as a close friend of U.S. Rep. Samuel S. Stratton, himself a former Union philosophy professor, Murphy shared his colleague's passion for politics, intellectual discourse and adventure. When the two weren’t discussing Jonathon Swift or Baruch Spinoza, they were surveying opportunities for one or the other’s political ambitions.

Murphy recently recalled the time in 1956 when Stratton, then the mayor of Schenectady, took Murphy along as a partner in a stakeout to bust a gambling ring. Murphy later related that his wife, well aware of the danger of the operation, was relieved to discover that the thump she heard on the porch early the following morning was the Sunday paper being dropped off, not Prof. Murphy.

The Murphy and Stratton families have remained close over the years. Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton, whose father died in 1990, said Friday that Murphy was “the father I haven’t had for the last 18 years.” Last year, the mayor presented the Murphys with Patroon Awards, the highest honor bestowed by the city.

The Spring 2008 issue of Union College featured a story about the close friendship between Murphy and Stratton. It is on the Web at:

Murphy made unsuccessful runs for Congress in 1948, state Senate in 1956, and state Assembly in 1959. 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 was born Aug. 6, 1916 in Astoria, Queens, and raised in Flushing. He would go on to study at Harvard University, earning bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees there. He taught for three years at Harvard, then served another three years as secretary of Harvard’s Committee on Educational Relations. He served in the U.S. Navy for three years, specializing in anti-submarine warfare, before he joined Union College.

He began at Union 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. In 1983 he received the Faculty Meritorious Service Award from the Alumni Council. He and his wife kept homes in Schenectady, Nova Scotia and Florida.  

He married the former Harriet Doane on Sept. 2, 1939. For more than 60 years, they spent their summers at their home in Bear Point, Shag Harbour, Nova Scotia. Survivors also include a son, Christopher; and daughters, Deborah Chase Murphy and Susan Doane Murphy Thompson.