Johnny Murphy was remembered Saturday as a man whose legacy will shape South Bryan and Richmond Hill for generations to come.
Murphy, a longtime developer and Richmond Hill’s mayor pro tem, died Dec. 19 after a battle with cancer. His memorial service was held beneath what was reported to be one of Murphy’s favorite oak tree’s on Ford Plantation.
Former St. Anne priest Father Joe Smith and the Rev. Steve Lane, pastor of New Beginnings Community Church, were among those to speak at the memorial.
So were former Bryan County Commission Chairman Jimmy Burnsed and Murphy’s attorney, Bill Glass.
Glass said Murphy came to him in 2011 after “the real estate lending crisis clobbered Johnny and so many others in the real estate business. I became Johnny’s lawyer to help him navigate those difficult times.”
However, Glass said he soon learned that being Murphy’s lawyer was “beside the point.”
“First of all, as everybody here knows, whether you were Johnny’s lawyer, colleague, engineer, architect, council member, wife or child, Johnny called the plays. Being his lawyer was a little bit like being his clerk. For the most part, I just executed Johnny’s plans and instructions, which were smart, thoughtful, moral and effective, and in every case better than I could have done myself.”
Glass said their relationship became a friendship, and “his values will affect me permanently.”
The attorney said Murphy refused to take the easy way out after the bottom dropped out of the real estate market.
“I don’t think Johnny could possibly appreciate what a tremendous moral example he was to me and others,” Glass said. “That’s because Johnny was not self righteous. He wasn’t the type of person who judged others at all or harshly, he didn’t wear his principles on his sleeve. But his example spoke volumes. When the real estate crisis happened I learned a lot about the people in it.”
Glass said he now tells people who ask for legal advice when their businesses face trouble “and debt collectors are pounding on their doors, the answer has much less to do with legal or financial strategy, and everything to do with their stomach or their heart.”
Glass said Murphy worked “day in and day out for six years in order to pay back or resolve all of his debt and other problems from the real estate crisis when it would’ve been fine or probably smarter, and certainly easier physically and emotionally if Johnny had just stepped away from the real estate crisis and allowed things to resolve themselves, like most business people and developers when things go upside down. Instead, Johnny went to bed every night and woke up every day thinking about how he could pay his debts, resolve bad projects and work with bankers and others to do the right thing.”
Glass spoke movingly about Murphy and his wife Leslie’s care of Kay Spier, a lifelong Richmond Hill resident who died in June 2017.
“I watched other people guess at why or for what advantage they would do such a thing since our busy and transactional lives don’t leave much room for that kind of thing, and during those times I didn’t know anyone more busy than Johnny,” Glass said. “I know this. He didn’t do it for credit, he didn’t do it for advantage. He did it from a deep sense of duty and generosity of heart. I will never forget what I learned from that example.”
Glass also noted that Murphy had gestalt, a philosophy which in simplest terms means a “unified whole.” Glass said it’s something Murphy prized but didn’t think he possessed.
“To Johnny, gestalt meant seeing around corners and being several steps ahead in order to form a 360 degree picture of a real estate project or other project before it was fully formed on paper or otherwise,” Glass said. “Johnny had gestalt but didn’t think so. Those of us who had the privilege saw him out engineer good engineers, out lawyer good lawyers and Johnny made professional designs, plans, and agreements more efficient and less expensive, prettier, smarter and better than they could be without his contributions. I really hope Johnny knew how clever he was, but I don’t think he did.”
Glass said Murphy did, however, treasure his family - he was proud of his daughters Lauren and Paige and son Clint and loved his wife, who Glass said provided “structure and serenity in a chaotic world. He loved you, Leslie, and he appreciated you, and believe me, he knew exactly what you meant to him and your family.”
Burnsed, a retired banker who said he’ll “always have a place torn loose in my heart for Johnny Murphy,” spoke of his first meeting with the man who would soon become his friend in 1989 over lunch at Hill Billiards.
“We developed a great, great friendship,” Burnsed said, noting that Murphy was then developing Oxford, and Belle Island and Redbird Creek.
“We went around and looked around at all those things, and he said to me, ‘Jimmy, the money’s in the dirt. It’s how you use the dirt whether you’re going to make any money or not,” Burnsed said.
He and others spoke of Murphy’s ability to look at land and see what it could be, something that amazed them through developments such as Turtle Hill and Buckhead and Buckhead North.
“And then the great recession hit, and Johnny and I spent some time praying and crying together, because everybody got hurt in that recession,” Burnsed said. “But the thing about Johnny is not only was he an unusual guy, but there wasn’t any quit in Johnny Murphy.”
Burnsed said Murphy would keep count of the number of homes in each subdivision on legal pads - “he had an incredible mind, he was always thinking about the community and what was best for Richmond Hill.”
Burnsed said when both Richmond Hill and Bryan County added engineering departments it frustrated Murphy, who often changed his projects on the ground without making changes to his plans, which frustrated county or city engineers when they came out to inspect.
“You’d have thought he’d have a heart attack,” Burnsed said, adding that once he was elected to the county commission Murphy would come see him to vent “and we’d cry and pray some more.”
Burnsed said Murphy and his partners helped the county acquire the land on which Henderson Park now sits, donating nearly $1 million in site preparation.
“What an incredible gift to the county,” Burnsed said. “That was Johnny Murphy. He knew it was the right thing to do to expedite it … so he pushed, and he pushed.”
Burnsed said when Murphy told him he had cancer, “we again spent time praying and crying together, but there again was no quit in him and he said ‘I’m going to beat this thing. I’m going to go at it full steam ahead.’ And he did. Unfortunately God decided something else. But Johnny Murphy leaves a legacy in this community that will be here as long as this community is here. Just ride through those subdivisions with all the beautiful homes and you’ll see all the good this man did for this community.”
Lane, who described Murphy as both a “dreamer” and a “landscape artist,” said he came to Richmond Hill in 2001 to start his church and was told by Rayonier to reach out to several developers to find the land.
Murphy was the one who called back, Lane said, and later not only donated the land to the church but also through his Betterway Foundation helped fund the construction.
“Some may have questioned the motive of Johnny Murphy’s giving, but I am a witness that not one time has he ever asked for recognition, he did not want people to know and there were never any strings attached to anything he did for us,” Lane said. “He was a selfless giver, he loved this community and I believe that’s one of the man reasons he served on city council. He wanted to be a servant.”
Smith, who built the new St. Anne’s sanctuary during his time at the church before taking a position at St. Joseph’s, said Murphy’s “spirituality was very different than most people, and that’s the understatement of all time.”
Murphy was a driven man who, as a builder and planner “cared about this community,” Smith said, but generated controversy over how the growth would impact Richmond Hill.
“Nobody agrees with everybody, nobody agrees with you all the time, and they don’t have to, it’s how we treat each other in general, and how we treat each other in life, that’s what matters,” Smith said, noting he found out what it was like to hear criticism of projects when he built St. Anne’s “and put my heart and soul and life into it,” then added “and lots of people didn’t like it.”
Smith said he had discussions with Murphy, who wasn’t a member of St. Anne’s, over the new church sanctuary, which the developer wanted to look like it belonged in Richmond Hill and be a monument, “and I tried to do that,” he said.
Smith said Murphy’s vision “helped form the city and what it is today,” and added that the developer had a great love of trees.
“Who would hold their funeral under trees,” he asked, before answering his own question. “Everyone should.”