Doris Murphy dies at 101
Doris Murphy died Monday at the age of 101 in her Occidental home. Known to be elegant, flirtatious and gracious, she rests on the laurels of enormous contributions to her community.
Doris was born in Portland, Oregon, and attended Reed College, a hotbed for socially progressive young people. The Great Depression was in full swing.
“Everyone lived at home and went to school forever, since there were no jobs,” she said in an interview two years ago.
Eventually she went to San Francisco and took a social work job dealing with people “in flight”– runaways, wives fleeing abusive husbands and such.
“Great training for social work,” she said.
When World War II broke out, Doris directed a Red Cross program helping soldiers’ families. During that time, in 1942, she met Joe, her soul mate. After some wild years as a “Wobbly” (International Workers of the World) organizer, he had gone to work for the Teamsters Union, championing the cause of unskilled labor. Doris was wearing a fur coat when he first saw her, and he nicknamed her “Miss Rich Bitch.” They connected nonetheless.
He already owned property in Occidental, and they often came up to camp as they cleared the land and began building. He supported her while she went back to school to earn a masters degree and a degree in medical social work.
When organized crime began moving in on the unions, Joe fought back. After a bitterly contested election, Joe and Doris left the city for their own safety and settled permanently in Occidental. Joe began raising and selling rhododendrons.
“He loved it,” Doris said in an earlier interview. “It was amusing that this big tough union guy loved selling rhododendrons so much. He said that before, people who came to see him were always upset about something, but when they came to buy plants they were happy.”
Doris went to work in a mental health clinic until President Ronald Reagan closed the nation’s mental health institutions.
“There were all these sick people on the streets. It was terrible,” Doris remembered. She made it her job to help them. During those years she hired Ernie Carpenter to help her. He went on to serve as a county Supervisor for 16 years.
In the 1980s, Occidental residents staged a Joe Murphy Day to honor the famous labor leader who was living in their midst. He died shortly afterwards. In his memory, Doris turned a building on her property into the Joe Murphy Labor Library to hold his papers that chronicled the development of the labor movement. Periodically scholars came there to study. The collection will now go to San Francisco State University, along with Doris’ journals.
Not content to help people just at work, Doris looked around Occidental and realized a lot of needs weren’t being met. She pulled together a variety of people to form a group that became the Occidental Community Council. This mirrored an effort she spearheaded for the county, putting together the Sonoma County Council for Community Services. She unsuccessfully tried to retire at 65 and ended up serving clients until she turned 90.
After a conversation with an Occidental choir member about the lack of performance space in Occidental, she organized the Occidental Center for the Arts. The group began fund raising efforts to put up a building to house performing arts.
“But we could never get enough money to build,” she said.
When Harmony School sold its Occidental campus and developer Orrin Theissen bought it, Doris met with Theissen and convinced him to donate an auditorium, a large classroom and bathrooms. The locals provided $250,000 worth of human capital to totally rebuild and transform an old gym into a top-of-the-line performance venue and gallery.
While all this was happening, Doris wrote and published “Love and Labor,” a memoir of her extraordinary life. A couple of weeks before the center’s official opening last year, the town celebrated her 100th birthday there. Doris wore an electric blue gown and cape for the occasion.
Doris is survived by two nieces, Elizabeth Park of Penngrove, and Barbara Wellner of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Using the center she envisioned, the town will honor Doris Murphy’s memory from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday, March 27.
— Andrea Granahan