In Memoriam: Michael J. Murphy

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Murphy receives the TEI Honorary Membership award in 2002. (Photos courtesy of TEI.)

Michael John Murphy, who served as TEI’s executive director from 1992 until the end of 2001, died on June 29. During his eighty-five years, Murphy lived a consequential life. He worked as a towel boy for the local professional football team in his hometown of Green Bay, Wisconsin; served in the US Air Force; worked for the Internal Revenue Service for thirty years, moving numerous times while rising from revenue agent to the position of senior deputy commissioner (the most senior position in the agency other than the presidentially appointed commissioner); led TEI during nearly a decade of growth and influence; and worked with the tax practice of an international law firm.

I had the pleasure of meeting Murphy when he was IRS deputy commissioner and working alongside him throughout his time at TEI. Following a brief biographical sketch, this remembrance describes Murphy’s impact on TEI and its members and concludes with personal remarks prepared for delivery as part of a celebration of his life that was held on July 15 in Dawsonville, Georgia.

Murphy was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on November 30, 1936. He was married to his hometown sweetheart, Lonnie Lom, for more than sixty years. True partners from beginning to end, they lived many different places across the country but never wavered in their mutual devotion and their longing for their family in Green Bay. Murphy is survived by Lonnie; their son, Daniel, and daughter-in-law, Christine; two grandchildren, Lauren and Ryan; two sisters, Mary Ellen and Kathleen; a brother, Terry; numerous nephews and nieces; and countless friends.

Murphy died of heart failure, which is at once poignant and fitting given how big a heart he possessed and how knowing Murphy left your heart absolutely full. Murphy was one of the world’s best listeners and was well known for ending conversations by saying, “Thanks for talking to me.” And he truly meant it, because when you talked, he listened, he learned, and he remembered. As his son, Dan, put it, he was “a living, breathing masterclass in how you treat other people.”

Murphy began his career in the US Department of the Treasury in 1962 as an IRS revenue agent in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1973, he was chosen for the IRS’s Executive Selection and Development Program, and after completion was moved to Washington to become the assistant director of international operations. (It was in this role that he met Dave Burn of Toronto who years later served as TEI’s 1986–1987 president.) Murphy was later promoted to assistant to the deputy commissioner at the IRS headquarters, district director in Des Moines, Iowa (where he was boss to Robert J. Birch who later became a member of TEI and a founder of the Iowa Chapter), district director in Atlanta (where he met Chuck Shewbridge of the Atlanta Chapter, who subsequently became TEI’s 1999–2000 president), and regional commissioner of the Mid-Atlantic Region in Philadelphia.

On a personal note, when Murphy served as district director in Iowa, he traveled to Burlington where he met with the town’s newspaper editor about local tax protesters. That editor was my father, and a decade-plus later Murphy vividly recalled their conversation, as well as the editor’s unique office, in meeting my mother for the first time.

Murphy graduated from Harvard University’s advanced management program in 1984, and in 1987 he was appointed to the post of senior deputy commissioner. Before retiring as the IRS’s highest-ranking career official in 1989, Murphy had ultimate responsibility of the agency’s $6.1 billion budget and managed a workforce of 116,000 employees. During his tenure as deputy commissioner, Murphy received meritorious and distinguished service awards from the president and the secretary of the treasury, and he was held in exceptionally high regard by current government officials in the United States, Canada, and numerous other countries, as well as other leaders throughout the tax community. In supporting Murphy’s successful nomination to receive the federal government’s National Public Service Award in 1991, TEI wrote:

For nearly three decades, Murphy has devoted himself to bettering relations between taxpayers and the Internal Revenue Service. For nearly three decades, he has devoted himself to making the system work. For nearly three decades, he has been part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Murphy served as deputy commissioner for two IRS commissioners—Larry Gibbs and Fred Goldberg—and was appointed acting commissioner between them. Here is what each said about Murphy:

Larry Gibbs, IRS commissioner, 1986–1989: Murphy was the most incredible person I have ever known. Murphy befriended everyone he met. He genuinely enjoyed and cared for others. Murphy’s enjoyment of people made him fun just to be around. His caring and concern for others was genuine. He was always there when a friend needed him. It is Murphy’s defining characteristic that he loved people. And people loved Murphy. This never changed throughout his life.

Murphy combined his people skills with his organizational talents and his leadership capabilities. His skills, talents, and capabilities were considerable. During his life, Murphy became the top career executive at the IRS, the executive director at Tax Executives Institute, and an advisor to Sutherland Asbill & Brennan (now called Eversheds), one of the most prestigious tax law firms in the country. These are three very different types of organizations. Murphy distinguished himself and flourished in each of the three. All three benefitted enormously from Murphy’s presence because of the fine talents and the fabulous personality Murphy brought to all three.

Murphy lives on today in the wonderful stories and memories about him that are now being shared by all who knew him. These stories and memories will continue, and the legend that Murphy became during his lifetime will endure. Each and all of Murphy’s many friends are better because we knew and loved Murphy who loved all of us right back in his own unique, genuine, and special way.

Fred Goldberg, IRS commissioner, 1989–1992: My unique good fortune was to have Murphy as deputy commissioner during my time as IRS commissioner. Words cannot begin to capture Murphy the person, Murphy the civil servant, and Murphy the leader. His joy of life, through good times and hard times, was boundless and infectious—like nothing I’ve experienced before or since. He was my dear friend, brother, counselor, teacher, anchor, and protector. Murphy’s devotion to the agency and every (and I mean every) IRS employee was boundless. His commitment to the IRS mission was unqualified. And his love for Lonnie and Danny was his constant.

Serving as TEI’s executive director was the second act of Murphy’s three-act professional career. His influence on TEI, however, began before he joined the Institute’s staff in 1992 and continued long after he retired at the end of 2001. He befriended, recruited, coached, mentored, and encouraged two generations of in-house tax professionals, many of whom served their TEI chapters and the Institute years, even decades, after he left TEI’s employ. These quotations from TEI members who served as president years after Murphy retired from TEI underscores his influence:

Bob McDonough, TEI president, 2007–2008: Murphy was one of a kind. Always happy, had a positive outlook on life, and made each member he met feel welcomed and valued. His ability to recall personal details about members was amazing. Murphy always put members first, making himself available to them whenever he could. He was a great ambassador for TEI, whose stature grew significantly under his leadership. Not surprisingly in my dealings with IRS senior leadership, it was clear what a legend he was within the government.

Robert Howren, TEI president, 2017–2018: Murphy always brought energy and a huge smile to every occasion. He was a man that had a mission of lifting everyone one else up.

Katrina Welch, TEI president, 2019–2020: Murphy was the first person I met at my first Institute conference after I had recently joined industry. Murphy greeted me with his characteristic Murphy smile and a warm welcome. From then on, he knew my name and each time we spoke made me feel as if he was genuinely glad for the opportunity!

Murphy (left) celebrates his TEI Honorary Membership award with his wife, Lonnie, and McCormally.

Murphy’s tenure at TEI was a period of tremendous growth, in raw numbers, in engagement with government, and in effectiveness. The Institute’s credibility was instantly enhanced as it built upon good relations with government officials in both Washington, DC, and Ottawa, worked cooperatively with government and others in the international tax community to improve both tax policy and administration, and provided much needed educational and networking opportunities to in-house tax professionals. He supported every part of the organization, from membership and finance to personnel and advocacy. Not only did he review every submission that TEI filed and testified before Congress, but he also pushed for TEI to become more diverse and coached TEI members, committees, chapters, and staff alike on how to be more effective. Linda Burke of the Pittsburgh Chapter, who served as TEI’s first female president (1994–1995), put it this way:

Murphy was such a boon to TEI and to me personally. He recharged our organization and made it hum with his outgoing leadership style and organizational skills. He could pull the best from all of us and made our TEI work fun. I admired him immensely. I have missed him, but I cherish the time I had with him.

Murphy’s skills played out at the staff level, too, where Murphy was both funny and fiercely loyal. He could challenge us while making us laugh, even while (gently) reproving us. He brought out the best in each and every one of us. “He always had our back,” Debbie Giesey, TEI’s director of administration, recently recalled. Indeed, when Giesey’s predecessor in the role died after years in the role, Murphy did not hesitate to promote Giesey, who had begun at TEI as an administrative assistant, to succeed him. When you could do the job and were willing to learn and work hard (as was the case with Giesey), Murphy did not care one whit about paper credentials.

TEI prides itself on being member-run, but the organization owes a full measure of credit to Murphy, whose knowledge of the tax system, managerial skills, good humor, and common sense redounded to the Institute’s benefit time after time. During Murphy’s tenure, the Institute chartered several new chapters, including our first outside of North America (in Europe), and expanded the number and reach of its educational programs. Murphy also served as the key contact between TEI and the then-Big Five accounting firms and other segments of the tax community.

Several strategic shifts that occurred during Murphy’s tenure deserve mention. First, Murphy spearheaded and oversaw the organization’s strategic relationship with RIA (Thomson Reuters) which continues to generate significant royalty income for TEI as well as discounts for its members. This successful program led to the launch of the second initiative—the Institute’s sponsorship program, which provides additional significant financial resources to the organization and enables TEI to keep its dues low. (Deborah Gaffney and I on the staff worked closely with Murphy in designing and administering the sponsorship program, but it was Murphy who persuaded TEI’s leadership to approve the initiative and convinced sponsors they wanted to participate.)

More holistically, Murphy was instrumental in the development of a comprehensive strategic plan that touched on all aspects of TEI’s operations. A key aspect of that plan was the implementation of a new association management system and an integrated e-commerce website. The AMS/website project built upon another of Murphy’s accomplishments—a successful strategic relationship with first Coopers & Lybrand and then PricewaterhouseCoopers to host the Institute’s first website (TEI Online). In 2022, it may be difficult to sense how revolutionary these technology-bases changes were two decades earlier (especially for an organization like TEI), but Murphy had the vision and the confidence to make them happen.

Murphy’s legacy at TEI is rich and varied, but the burnishing of the Institute’s credibility in dealing with government, especially during tax modernization efforts in both the US and Canada, and the successful implementation of a membership database system are especially noteworthy. He led the organization into the twenty-first century and because of his good work and effectiveness, the organization and its members continue to benefit long after he left the staff.

The following is adapted from remarks prepared for delivery on July 15.

As TEI’s general counsel and director of tax affairs, I had the joy of working with Murphy every day during his nearly decade-long tenure as executive director. I was his lawyer, and he was my client, my boss, my mentor, and my friend. And so much more. I know from experience that Murphy is an extremely hard act to follow. I know that without his coaching and his support I would not have been appointed to succeed him as executive director. And I also know that without the lessons he taught me, I wouldn’t have been prepared to.

Murphy came to TEI in 1992, and his transition from the IRS’s 116,000 employees to TEI’s staff of fewer than fifteen was from my vantage point seamless. In his first week on the job, he told me that being the deputy commissioner of internal revenue had been, and always would be, the most important thing he did in his professional life. He wasn’t bragging; he was explaining. And this reality did not mean he was nonchalant or in any way indifferent about leading TEI. Murphy was never indifferent about anything. But he was confident that what he had already done had prepared him for whatever the new job would throw his way. That job was to build TEI’s staff, develop and support us, and leave the organization better than he found it.

Without a doubt, he did. He imbued our technical submissions, liaison activities, and other advocacy efforts with greater credibility and verve. He oversaw the expansion of our network of local chapters and educational offerings. He successfully pushed us to create a website, introduce an online membership and payment system, and generally harness the Internet and technology for the benefit of the organization. And he did all this while bringing imagination and prudence to strengthening the organization’s financial footing.

Murphy had two qualities that most of us experienced first-hand. And envied. He remembered everyone he ever met—by name. Long after he left the IRS, Murphy couldn’t walk the halls of 1111 Constitution Ave. without running into someone who smiled and waved and was happy to see him. He was on speaking terms, on a first-name basis, with everyone, from commissioner to custodian, from program analyst to administrative aide, from chief counsel attorney to security guard. The same was true at TEI and later at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan.

Three former TEI executive directors enjoy a cigar: Eli Dicker (left), Murphy (center), and McCormally.

You couldn’t forget Murphy, in part because he would never forget you and all the details of your life. The family that grieves Murphy’s passing is enormously large. Like the Murphys, the McCormallys are a large, Irish Catholic family, and when I let my four brothers and sister know of Murphy’s death, every single one of them—some having met him only once or twice—recalled a story about Lonnie and him and spoke of how present he was in their lives. Weddings, funerals, St. Patrick’s Day parties, and other events, whether important or mundane, Murphy was there.

The second quality of Murphy’s that all of us are all aware of was his preternatural ability to nurture and inspire everyone he worked with. Many of us on TEI’s staff had been there for many years when Murphy arrived. Candor requires me to say that we did not always operate as a well-oiled machine. We were, we often joked, “the land of misfit toys.” Murphy changed that. He energized us and taught us to celebrate our differences, see the value in what others brought to the team, and work effectively together. He encouraged and challenged us all, taught us to focus on the real objective and always strive to do our best. And when your best wasn’t good enough, your first concern was that you had let Murphy down. He had an ability to take the personal out of disagreements. I don’t know how he did it, but he could make differences of opinion not about you or about me, but about the organization and getting the job done. He inspired us on a daily basis.

Murphy’s secret, I think, was that, while a proud man, he was without guile or gall. A bright, quick study, he could home in on what was important and never, ever, found it necessary to build himself up at the expense of others. He was, quite simply, utterly at home in his own skin. He was an excellent boss—and a better person.

And all that, I firmly believe, was not just the byproduct of being the consummate “people person” that he was. It’s the mark of a leader, a manager, a guide star to one and all. It’s the essence of a unique person who was always present.

Of course, Murphy loved a good party, and that was true whether it was a large, boisterous St. Patrick’s Day bash, a tax conference, or a small, even one-on-one conversation. And he hated parties to end and found it impossible to leave a party early. This meant that if you were the host, you had to be prepared for it to go on long after its scheduled end. And if you were out with him, it meant that you’d probably be late getting home.

Another brief story. At TEI, my end-of-day routine was to call my wife, tell her I was on my way home, and then stop by Murphy’s office—right next to mine—to say goodnight. Often, he would say, “I’ll walk out with you.” We’d make our way down the elevator, stand beside our cars, and despite having spent the previous twelve hours together, we’d continue talking. And talking. And talking.

This was before we all had cellphones. One particular night, our conversation in the parking garage extended well past an hour. When I finally made it home, I turned the key, opened the door, and called out, “Sorry I’m late. Mike and I got talking.” But unlike most times when she’d just shake her head, this time my wife, Judy, gave me one of those looks. She told me that Lonnie had called her, frantically wondering where Murphy was and whether they should start calling hospitals. That wasn’t the only thing that was said that night, in either the Murphy or McCormally home, but in this setting, I’ll say no more.

One final memory of Murphy and his TEI family. But first, a confession: One of the things that I haven’t always understood is why people like Murphy and my father-in-law loved golf as much as they did. But for them (as for many of you, I imagine), a bad day on a golf course is better than a great day at the office.

OK, the story. One afternoon, Murphy was out of the office for what we joked was an outdoor, environmentally green networking event. Unexpectedly, he called and somewhat haltingly asked me to gather the whole staff in the conference room. I did, sensing that something significant was up. I worried that someone had died, been in an accident, or taken ill. When everyone was assembled, I put him on speaker phone. “Okay, Murphy, everyone’s here. What is it? What did you need to tell us?”

“I shot a hole in one. I shot a hole in one! I shot a hole in one!

Because this was before the era of cell phones. Murphy had run from the green, found a phone, and called us to share his joy. He couldn’t wait. That was the reason his voice was halting. He was out of breath. I don’t know if we were the first call he made, but I’m glad we made the list. I can still hear the thrill in his voice. And his pride over his accomplishment stayed with him his entire life. If you wanted to make Murphy light up all you had to do was ask him, “Hey, Murphy, did you ever hit a hole-in-one?” He’d tell you and, oh, by the way, make sure you knew he hit another one, too.

This is not to say Murphy had no blind spots. He did. I know this because I was one of them. He made me, I think, one of his projects, from the day we started working together in 1992 until our last conversation, just a few weeks ago, more than twenty years after we stopped working together. As he had with so many people, he saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself and made my success his mission. And when I was hurting from some misjudgment or self-inflicted wound, he would heal me.

I loved Murphy. He made an indelible impression on me, and made me a better colleague, better manager, better friend. He made me a better person.

I had contemplated ending my remarks by quoting Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “The likes of him we will not know again.” But then I thought of Murphy up in Heaven, shaking his head with gentle disapproval. “Too pretentious,” he would scold. “It’s only me.” So instead, I end with an Irish blessing:

May the road rise to meet you, and the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm on your face, and the rains fall softly on your fields.

And until we meet again, may God hold you gently in the palm of his hand.

The family requests memorial donations in Murphy’s name to the American Heart Association or Susan G. Komen, the foundation for breast cancer.

Timothy McCormally was a member of TEI’s staff for more than thirty years, serving as executive director from 2002 through 2012.


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