Jim Murphy Jr., among countless other descriptors, was a negotiator.
His son, Saratoga County Court Judge Jim Murphy, saw his father play “three-dimensional chess” firsthand growing up.
“When I needed money for school clothes every year, starting in middle school, I would have to negotiate with him for how much money he would give me for a pair of pants and a T-shirt,” Murphy said. “I would put in what I wanted. And he would respond and say, ‘You don’t really need three shirts, you need one shirt.’ I’d say, ‘I really need two shirts.’ We’d go back and forth. That was how he was. He really wanted to instill in his children, my two sisters and myself, the idea of hard work, public service, dedication. Sitting idly around was not an option. There was no room for complaining.”
Murphy, in his 84 years of life, lived through that lens of hard work and public service alongside his wife, Constance King Murphy, and three children, Constance and Colleen and his namesake. Many people may be familiar with his historic two-term run as Saratoga Springs mayor in the ’60s, when he became the youngest mayor (at the time) in state history at just 28 years old. But it was his decades of public service, philanthropy and and lawyering that solidified his legacy in Saratoga and beyond. Murphy died on Jan. 5.
A Brooklyn native, Murphy earned his B.A. at Williams College in 1958 and found his way to the Capital Region when he studied for his juris doctor degree at Albany Law School for the next three years. He was a downstate kid who moved to Saratoga Springs after graduation, and practiced law alongside Joseph Duval and U.S. Rep. Carleton J. King. After a stint on the Saratoga Springs Board of Appeals, he ran for the city’s mayoral position as an outsider.
“It was surprising to him that he won,” Murphy said. “He had that downstate accent. Back then, Saratoga Springs was very colloquial. If you didn’t live here for 50 years, you weren’t from here. He had a lot of energy to do things he wanted to do. He’d grown up in New York. He knew what New York was and how lots of bad planning could make a city awful. He brought a lot of that perspective.”
Close friend and former Supreme Court Judge Loren Brown, however, wasn’t as surprised by Murphy’s victory.
“He was just a very popular person,” Brown said. “Everybody liked him. I was very supportive of him. I think I was district attorney at the time he was mayor. He was very intelligent.”
Murphy ended up, as his son puts it, “setting the seeds” as a “visionary,” working for Saratoga to retain its “historic, Victorian magnificence.” And when it came time to make additions to the city, they had to be up to his standards. There was no negotiating on that — even when McDonald’s wanted to come in.
“He said ‘We’ll take a McDonald’s,’ because people wanted to have McDonald’s food and have developments that will drive businesses. But, he said, ‘If you’re going to build McDonald’s, it’s going to be without the arches,” Murphy said. “It was the first McDonald’s ever not to have the Golden Arches as part of the building. McDonald’s said, ‘Then we’ll go elsewhere’ and he said, ‘Go right ahead.’”
Murphy’s reach as mayor was expansive. His son remembers when his father first became mayor, he had all of the city’s parking meters removed, without much, if any, board approval.
“He just directed the Department of Public Works to remove all the meters and institute two-hour parking,” Murphy said. “I remember this distinctly, he said they just ‘looked ugly.’ They were ‘bad for downtown business owners.’ It would dissuade people from parking downtown and shopping locally. And he thought, aesthetically, Saratoga Springs downtown needed to look a certain way.”
Murphy always accomplished his goals, his son said, although he sometimes took “shortcuts.” But as a lawyer, shortcuts weren’t an option; he would take any case and help anyone who needed him. He took pride in helping those around him, often taking on cases for no money.
Stuart Ginsburg, a close friend of Murphy since 1974, saw the local lawyer as a mentor.
“I think his legacy, when talking about him, would be his advocacy for his clients and his friends,” Ginsberg said. “Whatever he did, he got his hands dirty. Whatever he delved into.”
At one point, that meant buying and selling properties. Alongside Harry Snyder and Judge Brown, Murphy formed the partnership, Brown, Murphy and Snyder. The three weren’t ever connected in the practice of law, Snyder said, but they bought and sold properties to developers, a business that took them to Atlanta and beyond in their travels.
“He was more dedicated to making these ventures work out than either Brown or I were,” Snyder said laughing. “[And in government,] he was a sharp guy. He did a lot of things that, despite his youth, others could not accomplish.”
Doing things that others couldn’t accomplish also sometimes meant lifting a man who’s bigger than you are. Charles Wait, president and CEO of Adirondack Trust, met Murphy when he was serving as mayor and when Wait was fresh out of college. Wait aimed high around Murphy: “if you weren’t the best you could be around Jim, you’d lose.” But his favorite memory wasn’t of any bank run-ins, it was at a bar after a city council meeting.
“I’m a big guy, I’m 6’2 and 230 points,” Wait said. “He was shorter than I am and weighed less. I walked into the bar and said, ‘Mr. Murphy, how are you?’ He just looked at me with his eyes, walked over and he put his arms around me on the lower part of my back and lifted me about four feet into the air. As a young guy trying to respect his elders, I was like ‘What do you do with this?’”
But Murphy lifted up people in more ways than one. In the ‘80s, he started the Murphy Family Scholarship Fund, funding countless students’ educations at Williams College. His family gives to it yearly, and now they ask Murphy’s friends to do the same in his memory.
Murphy’s son will hold his father’s lessons close, but the one that changed his life — as well as his siblings’ lives — will continue to live on through them.
“Public service is part of who I think we should be, that we need to try to make good decisions that are as helpful as can be to as many people as possible,” Murphy said. “It’s one of those commitments that he demonstrated to all of us as children, and that we’ve all taken on.”