'Crowning glory'

Former mayor John Murphy granted Freedom of the City

Published on June 24, 2010

John Murphy made a vow many years ago he would never live anywhere else but St. John's.

After keeping that promise for nearly 88 years, Murphy is being honoured for his lifelong love affair with his hometown.

Just about everything in the capital city has John Murphy's fingerprints on it, and tonight he'll be thanked for his contribution with the Freedom of the City.

John Murphy made a vow many years ago he would never live anywhere else but St. John's.

After keeping that promise for nearly 88 years, Murphy is being honoured for his lifelong love affair with his hometown.

Just about everything in the capital city has John Murphy's fingerprints on it, and tonight he'll be thanked for his contribution with the Freedom of the City.

He and his wife, Sheilagh Guy-Murphy, live in the east-end St. John's home he built 40 years ago, with their massive golden retriever Ben.

From his yard he can see the Rennies Mill Trail and the river he says is so special because it runs right to the sea.

Guy-Murphy says her husband - who has been honoured with many awards including the Order of Canada - is touched and quite emotional about being honoured by the city he loves so dearly.

"I think this is the crowning glory ... coming from the city, coming from the people," she says. "This is the recognition of a lifetime."

The Freedom of the City is a rare honour given in cases of extraordinary service to the city.

She says you'd be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't know Murphy, and although he's been praised by some of society's most influential people, he's also respected and well liked by the average citizen.

Murphy's memory is still sharp, and he hasn't lost his sense of humour, but Parkinson's has taken a toll on his body and he now walks with a cane or walker.

Murphy, a radio announcer for many years, took over the Arcade in the 1950s after his first wife's father died. He took what was a small downtown store and built it into a seven-location chain with more than 100 employees.

Robert Innes, the founding president of St. John's Board of Trade, competed with Murphy in business for years, and says Murphy was a brilliant businessman.

He was great at marketing himself and just as good at marketing the city, Innes said.

"He was first class. He was a friendly competitor, he was a good competitor and he was, what I would call, a solid citizen all his life," Innes says, describing in detail the chronology of Murphy's career.

Murphy says he loves that St. John's isn't a flat city, he loves the colourful row houses and the walking trails.

But the things he's most proud of from his days in the mayor's chair, were the neighbourhood improvement programs, which resulted in building of the city's sidewalks, gutters and generally creating the services that are taken for granted today.

Murphy was also a catalyst for the creation of social housing in the city.

"My biggest claim to fame is being lucky," he says shrugging off compliments from others about hard work.

Murphy was voted deputy mayor in 1973, but in the 1977 election was unsuccessful in his bid to seize the mayor's chair from Dorothy Wyatt.

But in 1981, Murphy took the big chair at City Hall.

In the next election he won by acclamation.

During that time Murphy had an excellent relationship with the federal government and managed to get a lot of funding from Ottawa for infrastructure projects like Pitts Memorial Drive.

He left politics in the early '90s when his first wife became ill, but returned to reclaim the mayor's chair in 1993.

He lost to Andy Wells in the next municipal election.

Deputy Mayor Shannie Duff, who served for nearly a decade on city council with Murphy, says he was always a gentleman.

"My memory of those days was that it was fun," she says, explaining that everyone seemed to know one another at City Hall and Murphy encouraged that with annual parties at his house, barbeques and family events.

She describes him as generous, never nasty and always respectful.

"You could easily disagree with him and he would not take offence to it," Duff says, explaining that she worked with him long before she ran for council through several volunteer posts, including the Newfoundland Historic Trust. "... If you came John with an idea, he was more of a 'why not' than a 'why' person."

The St. John's Days was one example, Duff says, of Murphy embracing city spirit and a coming together of people.

She says there were parades and contests and it was a big event. Duff even has a picture of them jiving at a downtown bar from those days.

amorrissey@thetelegram.com