Former longtime San Mateo County Counsel Michael Murphy loved his family, traveling and drinking good wine, according to those who knew the West Point graduate who spent nearly three decades advising county leaders on legal matters and mentoring new generations in the office.
Murphy died Tuesday, June 5, 2014, of brain cancer, a disease he battled for two-and-a-half years before passing away surrounded by family at his San Mateo home.
“He never gave up,” said Gayle Murphy, his wife of 30 years this coming August.
Murphy was the county’s second counsel ever, helming the office from September 2007 to March 2011, after 25 years serving in it. Murphy was one of the leading public land lawyers and would have had a successful private practice had he not felt the calling to public service, said County Counsel John Beiers who served as one of Murphy’s deputies.
“The county was very lucky to have him,” said Beiers who recalled Murphy as a “lawyer’s lawyer,” super ethical, detail oriented, very scholarly and with an epic work ethic. But underneath that quiet and serious exterior, Beiers and Gayle Murphy both said he had a sense of humor, a love of baseball and a great athletic streak that included playing on a lawyer’s softball team — shortstop, and he was very good at it, Gayle Murphy said — coaching his now-grown two daughters’ soccer teams and enjoying the outdoors through skiing and biking.
Murphy was born in Yokohama, Japan, where his military father was stationed and grew up on the Monterey peninsula before heading to the United States Military Academy at West Point. After his 1970 graduation, Murphy underwent ranger and parachutist training before being assigned to Germany. He rose to the rank of captain and earned an Army commendation medal for meritorious service.
After the Army, he earned a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley and briefly joined a private firm before coming to San Mateo County where he’d finish out his career. By 1998, he was appointed as one of two chief deputies and, in July 2006, named to the newly created position of assistant county counsel. When former county counsel Tom Casey retired in August 2007, Murphy filled his shoes.
“He was a quiet guy but had a lot of energy and enthusiasm. He accomplished quite a bit in his life and we’re grateful for that,” Gayle Murphy said.
Murphy’s accomplishments included defending the county’s local coastal program and the Coastal Protection Initiative, defending the measure authorizing the Devil’s Slide Tunnel bypass, advising the San Bruno Mountain Habitat Conservation Plan, helping stop proposed disposal of dredged spoils off the county’s coast and defending the county’s financial privacy regulations.
Murphy retired in March 2011 with plans to travel and relax and maybe even teach. Gayle Murphy said he was diagnosed with a tumor that December, which didn’t give him as much time as they had expected to enjoy his retirement but that they both made the most of it. Gayle Murphy said they did a lot of reading and lunch with friends. There were wine trips including a river trip in France. The excursion was a highlight and full of memories, Gayle Murphy said.
Once Murphy’s medical options were exhausted and he recovered from a broken hip, he returned home in April where his wife said he finished out his days with his loved ones.
“If he had to go, he left the way he wanted,” she said.
Murphy is survived by his wife, two daughters and three sisters.
A memorial service is 2 p.m. Friday, June 20 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Burlingame.
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