By Dave Ongie, News Editor
It’s been said that tough times don’t last, but tough people do.
There is an undeniable toughness inside Carroll Murphy, a pillar of our community who has endured his share of trying times during his 84 years on this earth. He learned the value of hard work at a young age and has persevered tirelessly ever since to reach the goals he has set for himself and his family.
But beneath that toughness beats the tender heart of a servant leader. Murphy’s deep faith in God, his loving devotion to his family and his extensive service to our community have overwhelmed the hard times he’s faced with an enduring, abundant joy.
His six children, all college graduates, have gone out in the world and found success. His eight grandchildren are following in their footsteps, six of them college graduates and the other two on track to join them. And his two great-grandchildren are here in Johnson City, taking their first steps in the town where their great-grandfather was born and raised.
“I’m one of the most blessed people in the world,” Murphy said. “I’ve got no complaints about anything. I’ve had a lot of hard times and a lot of hard things happen to me, but the good has outweighed the bad. I have no bitterness about anything or anyone.”
Letting go of bitterness is a lesson Murphy said his father instilled in him when he was a young boy. “Let bygones be bygones,” his dad would often tell him. Murphy said he didn’t understand the advice then, but it became invaluable as the years unfolded before him.
The other virtue instilled in Murphy when he was a young boy in Johnson City during the 1940s was the value of hard work.
When he was 9 years old, Murphy used to grab the shoeshine box his brothers had built for him, throw it over his shoulder and head downtown. Once he got there, the skinny youngster the other kids called “Spider” would make the rounds from Diamond Cab to Checker Cab to Yellow Cab to the two bus stations and finally the train station. That loop would often earn him as much as $5 before noon.
By the time Murphy was 12, his family had dissolved and he was living on his own. It was a precarious situation for a boy to find himself in, but Murphy recalled that people in the community reached out to meet his needs.
“It’s amazing how people will help you,” he said.
Every weekday Murphy would hop on his bicycle and do odd jobs in the morning before grabbing a quick bite of breakfast at a restaurant owned by one of his football coaches. Then he’d hustle to get to school by 8 a.m.
Murphy graduated from Langston High School at 16 with every intention of leaving Johnson City behind for good. He planned to go to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he lived with one of his brothers.
But fate intervened in the form of a girlfriend from back home named Shirley Machen. Shirley was ahead of Carroll at Langston, and was attending nursing school in Youngstown, Ohio, while Murphy lived in Washington, D.C. The two exchanged letters for a year before they both returned to Johnson City to be united in a marriage that lasted 66 happy years.
Back in Johnson City, Murphy recalls becoming a licensed funeral director and having the distinct pleasure of helping John Fletcher “Rev” Birchette, Jr. during the early days of Birchette Mortuary.
“I didn’t make much money in that business, but he was a great influence on me and a great mentor,” Murphy said. “He gave me great advice, and I cherish Rev Birchette to this day because I could have gotten into a lot of trouble in life if he had not been there for me. It was just a treat, too, to be able to work under him.”
The Murphys left Johnson City briefly when Carroll took a job with North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in Durham. They eventually returned to Johnson City, but seemed destined to leave for good when Carroll was offered a promotion out of state. The only catch was the promotion would require the family to move to Birmingham, Alabama, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
“It was just the same time they had that bombing and those girls were killed in that church,” Carroll recalled. “Shirley and the kids that were old enough didn’t want to go, so I had to do something.”
In the end, devotion to family won out, and Carroll opted to start cleaning floors and washing windows in Johnson City instead of moving to Birmingham. He also began catering private parties, a lucrative side business that thrived for years.
“Most people then, instead of going to the country club, they’d have parties,” Murphy said. “I knew them all. I did at least two parties a week, and at Christmas time I was busy every night.”
It was at one of these parties that a young congressman named Jimmy Quillen asked Murphy how things were going. Murphy told the congressman he was out of work, and Quillen promised to see if he could get Murphy on at the VA. A couple days later, the phone rang and Murphy embarked on what would become a 35-year career that saw him faithfully care for countless veterans.
Murphy’s goal was to send his six kids to college, so he threw his penchant for hard work into overdrive, often working multiple jobs at the same time. As he saved money, his children were taking note of the example he set.
“They saw me go to work, and they went to work,” Murphy said.
His children started out helping at the parties he catered. Eventually they all got jobs of their own.
When Murphy’s oldest son – Bill – received an academic scholarship to Vanderbilt, there were some expenses that were not covered. So Murphy figured out that if he could sell an average of three sets of World Book Encyclopedias each week, he could make up the difference.
“World Book was a big thing back then,” Murphy said. “I’d hit the pavement and go out some nights and sell four, five, six World Books. I did that for four years and kept him in Vanderbilt.”
Today Murphy’s oldest son is a doctor, and the 65-year-old is running a thriving practice in California. His other three sons are thriving as well. Darrell is getting ready to retire after a successful career at Eastman, K.C. is the chief of corrective therapy for the VA in Dallas and Leland is involved in the real estate business in Knoxville, where Murphy’s daughter Angela lives.
Murphy’s youngest daughter Velma is the head of human resources for Dollar Tree in Tallahassee, Florida.
“That’s the greatest blessing in the world when your children do well,” Murphy said.
The family was back together two months ago, but the occasion was bittersweet. The children were back in town to grieve the loss of Shirley. After three years of declining health, she passed away on Nov. 29, and the funeral was held on Dec. 6.
“To see them all here, it was a sad time with their mother, but having them all here was such a blessing,” Murphy said. “I’m not sad because she was so sick the last six months, but I tell you, I miss her. Oh my goodness, I miss her.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better wife. She really taught my children well.”
The funeral was a testament to the impact Carroll and Shirley have had on our community. Murphy said over 430 people came through the line, all folks whose lives had been positively impacted in some way by the couple over the years.
Hard work has been one thread that has run through Murphy’s life, but it isn’t the only one. His faith has been at the center of his life along with his family. Murphy has served as a deacon for over 50 years, and continues in that role at Oak Grove Baptist Church in Gray. He also spent 10 years in the Kairos Prison Ministry.
Any extra time Murphy had beyond church, family and his work was devoted to the community. He has served on several boards over the years, including the Red Cross, United Way, and also represented the VA on the admissions board for ETSU’s medical school. He was also the first African-American on the Johnson City Power Board and went on to become the chairman.
From his days shining shoes to his compassionate care for World War II veterans at the VA to his current role as a deacon and mentor, Murphy was born with a servant’s heart that is still beating strong.
“Everything I’ve done in my life has been serving,” he said. “Isn’t that something? People say, ‘I don’t know what my calling is.’ I know what mine is – I’m a servant.”