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John J. Murphy

Biographical information

John Murphy is best known to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador in his dual roles of public servant and independent businessperson. He served the people of St. John's for 17 years - as deputy mayor for four years and as mayor for 13 years. During his term as mayor, St. John's absorbed a large number of satellite communities and expanded from 25 square miles to 200 square miles. His achievements include saving the historic look of old St. John's through neighbourhood improvement, housing repair and subsidized infill housing programs. As well, under his leadership St. John's initiated and completed extensive road constructions in and out of the city.

In the business world, Mr. Murphy was president of John J. Murphy Ltd. which owned and operated seven retail stories in the province, including the Arcade store in St. John's, a Water Street fixture for many years. Mr. Murphy has served as president of the Newfoundland Board of Trade, a member of the Advisory Board of Royal Trust, and a director of Lawton's Drugs, Great Eastern Oil and Texaco. His community service record includes the chairmanship of the Salvation Army Red Shield Campaign, the Leave a Legacy Newfoundland committee and a patron of the 508 Air Cadet Caribou Squadron. He has been chairman of the Canadian Forces Liaison Council, spent eight years on the National Capital Commission and sat on the Board of Regents of Memorial University.

Mr. Murphy has been named a Member of the Order of Canada, and awarded the Queen's Jubilee Medal, the Canada Medal, and the Paul Harris Fellowship Rotary Medal.

Oration honouring John J. Murphy
Given by Dr. Annette Staveley, Deputy public orator

John Shakespeare, astute businessman, father of that young scapegrace, William, rose to municipal prominence to become the chief alderman and mayor of his home city. As mayor, he had onerous duties:

It was his job to report and punish residents of his city who were living immorally, to arrest employees who disobeyed their bosses, who hung around the town after sundown. Most importantly of all, he was responsible for dealing with scolding wives whose fate it was to be tied to a "cucking stool" and ducked in a stretch of water nearest the town.

John Murphy, the mayor we honour today, must be very glad that his duties have changed considerably since the days Sir Humphrey Gilbert hove up on these shores. We no longer require our mayors to admonish the morals or the tongues of our citizens. The crowded bars on George Street, where the sun never sets, wouldn't be able to pay their taxes and our John would never allow Mary Walsh, who scolds all of Canada, to be ducked in the harbour. However, John does share with John and William Shakespeare some essential qualities needed to be a successful, municipal politician the energy and positive ambition to improve the place where you are born, and the dramatic insight that a public man plays many roles and parts on the stage of life. After all, it was William who best combined the art of acting and story-telling with business acumen to secure the best house in Stratford as well as the title and heraldic insignia of gentleman.

It should be no surprise, then, that today, on this best stage of all, we will accord to John Murphy, for his exemplary career in the theatre of municipal politics, and his outstanding contribution to public service and, at times, entertainment, not merely some heraldic insignia, but the dignity of the academic title of doctor of laws.

The quality of my metaphor is not strained. Kevin Major has called Newfoundland politics the "entertaining sport of personalities," and from John's early days as an announcer on VOCM, where he initiated an early version of the open-line radio show, he has used his talented personality to engage the audience and to play the game with dignity. Recently John credited his popularity and success as a civic and, civil, politician to his dramatic skills.

My whole background is theatre
What do you think Council was?

John's first role on stage was in a St. Bon's production of It Will Be All Right on the Night, a sentiment that got him through many a St. John's Council meeting. Ever the showman, John brought in television cameras to council chambers and we all lined up to watch as his rambunctious company of players tried to upstage him, where the outspoken, and the outrageous, assailed him with "slings and arrows." Through it all, John stood his ground, the high ground of civility and grace, conscious that much of the real work of balancing budgets, preserving our historic heritage, extending the tax boundaries, building the infrastructure for oil and gas development, improving and incorporating local neighbourhoods, renovating our parks, yes, and dealing courteously with the crabby citizens who called him in the middle of the night to shovel out their driveways, went on backstage, behind the scenes in the unglamorous, workaday world of the civic politician.

Jan Morris visited this town when John Murphy was mayor. She wrote that St. John's was one of the places I like best in the world. This was no anodyne praise. The prospect of a visit from Jan Morris and the publication of her trenchant, sardonic reports have struck fear in the hearts of the mayors of London, Paris, New York, Sydney, San Francisco and Ottawa. Of course, the topography, history and uniqueness of St. John's spoke for itself, but without the generosity and hospitality of its citizens, led by Mayor Murphy, we might have had a very bad review. Instead, St. John's is the mecca for tourists looking for a distinctive, safe place of "varied inheritances and associations," where the "Narrows is like a door upon a world far wider than Canada itself," where its cosmopolitan nature gives it a "status beyond its size."

Never a man to be typecast, nor to be falsely modest about his achievements, John has played major roles in a whole range of other organizations, serving as president of Halley and Company, president of the Board of Trade and Rotary and the Cancer Society, member of the Capital Commission Campaign, fund-raising Chairman for the Salvation Army, the St. John Ambulance, member of Memorial's Board of Regents, who personally sponsored awards and presentations to the students of Burke House in Paton College.

How does he do it all? The list of his starring roles is endless, yet through it all John is a model of commitment to bettering the lives of others. Never content to sit idly in the audience, John and Sheilagh are tireless entertainers: raising funds for charity, staging operatic concerts, hosting parties on Paddy's Day, opening their home to the people stranded by 9/11, performing in the play Love Letters, even riding an elephant in the Shriner's Parade.

John is the living testament of what the medics and geneticists tell us 60 is, indeed, the new 40. So, John, 80 is the new 60. And, Andy, you better watch out in September. We have had Star Wars Episode III; we could have John Murphy Episode V.

Where does he get his youthful appearance and energy? Sheilagh tells me it is all due to daily doses of cod liver oil and liberal applications of the actor's standby Nivea Intensive Cream for Men. Indeed, there are plans to have John and Sheilagh enrol in the Faculty of Arts Performance and Communications Media Program, to mount a production of, you guessed it, The Remains of the Day, with John playing Anthony Hopkins, his favourite actor, and Sheilagh, Emma Thompson. No? She tells me that she'd rather play Bette Midler.

Perhaps Ray Guy knew the honourable tradition associated with the term Rags, when he coined the affectionate epithet Rags Murphy to denote John's business involvement with that legendary St. John's institution, the Arcade, the forerunner of Winners and Target. After all, the term Rags has an honourable tradition in the acting fraternity. Will Shakespeare's fellow actors were known as Shakerags.

As John stands in his elegant, red rags even more elegant than the clothes he wore when he first ran for public office, I direct him to shake his rags when you give him top billing in this East End show and award him the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa.

Address to convocation

Honourable Chancellor, Mr. President, distinguished guests, family, friends and you the graduates.

Boswell recorded that Johnson said "A desire for knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind." To which we might add and should continue all our lives


Congratulations! What a happy day for you and what a happy day for me!

You can be most grateful to your university teachers and to the many dedicated people who built this great institution.

How fortunate you are. When I was growing up, we had few roads, the longest being 70 miles to Placentia. We certainly didn't have a degree conferring institution. If you had the money, and few did, you could study in England, Canada or the US. We did have a junior College on Parade St. where you could study only the first two years of a BA or B.Sc. I took a so called business course there. Newfoundland was governed from England at the time and the program I was doing was in pounds, shillings and pence; totally incomprehensible to me as was the double entry bookkeeping. My Memorial days were numbered you might say.

Premier Joe Smallwood went up to Signal Hill, looked out from Cabot Tower at all the vacant land around Long Pond and said "That's where I will build a great new university, a Confederation Building and a great new General Hospital." But the land was privately owned and it took 14 frustrating years of negotiations before actual construction began.

In 1961, 45 years ago, this campus was finally opened with just four buildings and 1,400 students.

To lend a tone to the opening ceremonies the government invited Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of the president of the United States, to officiate. I was quite surprised when she described how much her husband, Franklin, loved to come here salmon fishing. The sweet old lady was somewhat dotty and thought she was in St. John, New Brunswick. Incidentally she charged a fee of $5000.

A few years after that Lord Taylor of Harlow, who had rebuilt that English city after the war, was appointed President and Vice Chancellor? Lord Thompson, the richest man in Canada at the time became chancellor, followed by Paul Desmarais, the second richest man in Canada now we have The Hon. John Crosbie, the richest wit in Canada.

Lord Taylor was truly a remarkable man a medical doctor, a town planner, an engineer and a teacher. At the time I was fortunate enough to be on the Board of Regents. I served six exciting years and enjoyed my association with Lord Taylor and the many world famous people he brought here. He told me he had a phone call one Friday afternoon from Premier Smallwood. Mr. Smallwood said, "Lord Taylor, I want you for prepare for me a full plan for the development of Memorial University for the next 10 years." And as an afterthought he added, "Take as long as you like, take 'til Monday."

Lord Taylor was tireless in his work for Memorial.

During his eight years as President Lord Taylor presided over the creation of Harlow Campus, the new library, the divisions of summer sessions, a $5 million engineering building, chosen by World Health to research the Eastern Artic, created a division to study Newfoundland dialect, culture and folklore, the extension services, new student residences, one of which, Burke House I became the patron of.

In, 1968 while I was Regent, a large group of students held a protest march on the American Consul's residence, then on King's Bridge Rd. The students brought bags of garbage which they dumped on the lawn there, in protest of the Vietnam War. Mose Morgan, I and other Regents went down to check the scene, little did I know that somewhere in the crowd of students, yelling "peace not war" was my future wife Sheilagh.

Many years ago a good friend of mine, a successful business man told me his one regret was that he had been afraid to offer himself for elected office.

At that time my business was doing well, so, in 1973, I offered myself for public office. I had been concerned that so much of our old historic city was being torn down and so many people moving away from the city core. I ran for city council and to my surprise was elected deputy mayor. There were no computers then and many invoices were hand written. While Councillor at the time, Miller Ayre, now the publisher of the Telegram, modernized the administration; I took on Ottawa and was successful in getting financial sharing for neighbourhood improvement programs, grants to upgrade older homes, new infill housing and sewer rebuilding: all of which helped save many of the older parts of the city.

The suburbs of St. John's had been allowed to spring up with little planning and inadequate services. Over the following 20 years, while I served the city, the towns of Wedgewood Park, the Goulds, Kilbride, Shea Heights, East Meadows and Airport Heights were all annexed to St. John's, enlarging the city from 25 square miles to over 200 square miles and we built the roads to accommodate the growth.

All that time Memorial was expanding. I watched our university grow from 300 students in that old building on Parade St. to become the largest university in Atlantic Canada and the new library, research facilities, recreational buildings the medical school, the music school and others have all added an enormous value to this city.

As President Axel Meisen outlined for us in his recent comprehensive address to the St. John's Rotary Club, the financial contribution of the university to the city is enormous. Memorial is also the city's biggest business with over 17,000 students, hundreds of teachers and support staff. I am thrilled to see the funding we receive for research in many disciplines, including pioneer work in Parkinson's disease, so much in the news recently with the death of the Pope.

While based in St. John's we recognize the tremendous influence of Memorial in Corner Brook and indeed throughout all Newfoundland and Labrador, delivering education to the far flung regions of an isolated and rugged land, using computers, television, teleconferencing and telemedicine. I was on council for many years and Mayor for 14 years. I was always pleased to acknowledge the practical symbiosis that has existed between town and gown. Did you know that the beautiful chandeliers in Gushue Hall were a gift from the city and that the hand carved bookcases in the mayor's office a gift from Memorial.

I have spoken about my time in elected office. In honouring me today, I feel you are also recognizing all the men and women, many Memorial graduates who have and continue to serve their communities in elected offices.

Today you graduate, leaving one group, the student body and entering another, the alumni. Take your natural feeling for knowledge with you. Continue to use the remarkable facilities of this great university and this wonderful city.

How much you can learn and enjoy at our School of Music, the GEO Centre, The Rooms to mention a few.

Our artists and writers have made life in the rest of Canada sparkle just a little bit more.

I am proud to accept this degree; proud to be counted with the other distinguished degree recipients whom I congratulate.

Thank you.