One day many years ago, Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy and other legislators were on a guided tour of the critical care neonatal unit at Grady Memorial Hospital.
After seeing the facilities and some of the tiny patients, high-risk infants who could receive the intensive care they needed only at Grady back then, he turned to then-Rep. Eleanor Richardson.
“I don’t care what we have to do or how we have to do it,” he said, “but we will do what it takes to make sure these babies have a chance to live. Just get me out of here, so I do not have to see another one.”
His emotions had gotten the best of him.
The longest serving Speaker of a state House of Representatives in U.S. history died Monday at the age of 83. From 1974 through 2002, Murphy presided over the House chamber during Georgia’s greatest period of population growth and economic prosperity.
Thomas Bailey Murphy shaped modern Georgia history as much or more than any other individual. An exceptional “country lawyer” from Bremen, he was first elected to the Georgia House in 1960.
Known for being a stern ruler, he was, in fact, a softhearted leader who truly believed that those less fortunate should not have to start out life with two strikes against them.
“Mr. Speaker,” as he was called by everyone under the Gold Dome, came out of the Depression era with a deep sense of caring, nurtured even more so by his experience caring for his invalid older brother James, who preceded him in death.
Tom Murphy, or “Tom,” as he was called in his native Haralson County, left a legacy of fiscal restraint, social caring and a deep belief that as Atlanta goes so goes the rest of the state. His rural roots never stood in the way of progressive policies that enabled the capital city to reach the status of international juggernaut.
Without Murphy’s support and leadership, there would not be a Georgia Dome or World Congress Center. There would have been no Centennial Olympics in Atlanta, much less a Centennial Olympics Park. Georgia doubled its investment in higher education during Murphy’s tenure — while cutting state taxes, not raising them.
His passing truly punctuates an amazing era in Georgia politics: more than 130 years of Democratic control of state government. On the same day his reign as Speaker ended in 2002, when years of Republican growth in his west Georgia district finally overcame his political strength and popularity, a Republican governor was elected, and partisan majorities in both the House and Senate have since flipped.
But Tom Murphy fought the good fight to the end both in politics and in life. The state of Georgia is better off because he did.
Steve Anthony served as Speaker Murphy’s top aide from 1981 to 1995 and as executive director of the Democratic Party of Georgia from 1995 to 1998.