April 17, 2012

A tribute to my mentor that he would have REALLY HATED


Today I learned that my mentor and former boss (which he termed as double SOB backwards) passed away in Covington, Georgia. His name was Joseph P. Murphy, and he was a south-sidda-Chicago Irish Catholic boy whose childhood and early adult life gave him plenty of challenges.
Thirty years ago I worked in a large and respected Florida hospital in the public relations department. Before prospective payment, hospitals often had multiple departments dedicated to “raising friends and funds” for the organization. We were an internal agency for the large hospital and its related businesses.
After a series of management changes, the job I originally moved from Indiana for became something else. That did not make me happy. No one else in the department was happy either, and expressing that opinion in the 1980s didn’t necessarily mean you were getting fired. The fresh-faced country club Vice President who was assigned over us was equally unhappy with his new assignment, and found all of us quite beneath him.
Literally. Our office was literally in a basement and the hellhole of the entire complex. Across the street stood this gleaming 8-story testament to modern health care, while we peasants selling the place kvetched about everything in the moldy, mildewed basement we called home.
Things did not go well. We turned against our supervisor who received no support from Vice President Fresh Faced. We had some legitimate issues, as did she. The minions asked for a meeting with Said Supervisor and Vice President Fresh Faced.
In my thirty-plus year career, this meeting stands out about all others, because it was during this meeting that I learned it IS possible to throw an IBM Selectric typewriter. Mr. Fresh Faced got so exasperated with the Young Upstarts and so Fed up with us, that he threw a typewriter across the room. We complained. He was not fired; in fact he won that battle because he got rid of us.
We were assigned to the new Vice President, an unknown who had come up from South Florida, a mystery man that no one knew anything about. Mr. Murphy. We tested Mr. Murphy also, to see how far we could push him.
We were like a roving band of creative types whose energy wasn’t challenged in the correct way. For example, when the lone male, Piggy (God Rest His Soul) started working there he had the propensity to leave up the toilet seat. So we pulled the old Saran Wrap trick on him, something left over from junior high band camp (which was pretty much where we learned out guiding principles.). If you don’t know what I’m talking about, this involves putting a piece of Saran Wrap across the toilet bowl so that when a male is urinating he gets something in return. Well, a lot in return, mostly all over his clothes. That took care of that.
Also, with a number of females in the department, the Sergeant Major (formerly Australian Army World War II) who was the building manager accused us of stealing toilet paper. We were not.
But we felt challenged and annoyed. So then we HAD to steal the toilet paper, causing a shortage for the entire building. Like Queen Victoria, the Sergeant Major was not amused. It is this barrel of monkeys that Joe inherited.
Then Joe, whom we later called The Wizard, came and figured out how to channel our creativity into actual work. Never has a team functioned so well. We produced wonderful programs and materials in support of our mission.
And the resonance of the work environment changed from dissonance to harmony. We had a wonderful time; we socialized together at the Murphy home, a renovated shack in Oldsmar on Tampa Bay. We had theme parties and costume parties. One of the young ladies I worked with dressed in a sleeveless vintage ‘50s ball gown and army boots. Mr. Murphy who was always the dead pan straight man, pretended not to notice which made it funnier.
So what happened? What did he do? Well, for one thing, he listened to us. And then he taught us.
In the middle of having fun – something unheard of in today’s crazy business environment – The Wizard taught all of us how to live and work in a business environment. I was terrified of public speaking, yet I dreamt of managing a marketing department in a large hospital.
Murphy forced me to speak in front of the department manager’s group, a more benign group of folks you’ve never seen. But I was terrified.
I told him I would quit if he made me do it.
He said, “Fine, quit then.” Of course I didn’t quit. And while telling me to quit, he was also coaching me on HOW to do it. I spoke for the first time to a group of about forty people, most of them writing in their hospital-issued expensive Franklin planners (pre-Blackberry.)
Something weird happened. About half-way through my talk (on whatever Foundation program we were hawking at that time) people started paying attention. I mean really listening and engaging in my words.
Turns out I have a gift for public speaking, but lacked confidence and that little push from behind.
Murphy pushing me to do this was a turning point in my career. Within three years I was the Director of Marketing for a well-known Tampa hospital with cutting edges programs, and routinely talking to large regional and national media folks.
Had he not pushed me, I would have been in the basement still, complaining about our phone etiquette lectures. (Literally before Murphy came we were so rude management dictated that we attend an in-service on how to answer the phone, “Hello, this is Mrs. Jones, yada, yada, yada.”
Today “Mrs. Jones” is our code when we call each other.
Joe taught us how to play the game, and let us know our talents would never surface or be fully utilized if we didn't play ball, sometimes. So we all took the mandatory phone training and laughed about it. The man who threw the typewriter at us was in a different division. And we gelled as a creative team.
I was a staff writer, Murphy encouraged me to freelance and use all of my creativity. A prolific writer himself about American history, he was my greatest champion and my harshest critic. When my book came out, his opinion mattered most. Somewhere there’s a letter where he told me what he liked about my book. He also told me where I could do better.
Before he died we were having a back and forth about fiction, always a work in progress. I would send him a piece of fiction and he would send it back and say, “You need to do this.” And he was, daggone it, always right. But he really liked my book, and that was a joy.
In a sense, he was a pseudo-father to all of us who worked for him. Right before he came to the hospital, he and his wife lost their only child to cystic fibrosis. At birth, his daughter was given a bad prognosis, yet she lived two decades under the wonderful care of her doting parents.
She was just a year younger than the youngest of the three young women to whom he was the closest in the department. I’m very proud that one of the other woman works at Mayo and the other works at Harvard. Both of them are exceptional human beings who have and continue to make a great contribution to the world. While the three of us had different dreams, some grander than others, all of us achieved our dreams. I believe all three of us would say that it was in no small part related to Murphy’s nudging and advice. His wife is also a wonderful and dear person, an amazing artist and human being, and a social worker who put up with FDFC for many years.
I’m attaching some "publications" at the end that my friend who works at the mythical place in Cambridge saved from our salad days. I lampooned the weekly typewritten newsletter the department put out. Someone also published the “Sayings of Joe Murphy” most of which are attributed to Mark Twain and Abe Lincoln, but I don’t care.
Joe and his wife lost their daughter at the same time Joe left a job over an issue where he felt he was asked to do something against his personal integrity. His daughter needed specialized care; she was suffering and had never been expected to live more than a few years. Now she was reaching her second decade, and yet he still took a stand about right and justice despite his complicated personal family life.
None of us had been exposed much as to how ethics at work can intersect with family life; nor had any of us had to make those difficult choices. Since then, the example of Joe has stood like a shining beacon (he would really hate that) in all of our lives. Piggy lost his life early, and his weekly golf games with Joe were no more. One of the young ladies got a law degree from University of Chicago, battled two kinds of cancer and beat it and now works in a think tank at that Mythical Place in Cambridge, Mass. The other became widowed at fifty after taking care of her ailing parents and now works in a prominent administration position at Mayo.
No one ever knows what the future will bring. We were very lucky that Murphy came into our lives, touching each of us in a way we will never forget. Lord, how he would hate this essay. The only way I could write it is that he is gone now. Though he didn’t believe in a heaven anymore, I do, and I’m envisioning The Wizard and Piggy playing golf and embroiled in some deep philosophical discussion complete with Joe’s rejoinders. As he would say, nice day if it doesn’t rain, which loosely translated means GET OVER YOURSELF AND ON WITH IT.