Rick Murphy, Throwback Journalist And Columnist, Dies At Age 70

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Rick Murphy

By Bridget LeRoy

I can’t recall a day in the past few years when Rick Murphy arrived at work without a smile on his face.

He was, quite simply, one of the most affable fellows I’ve ever met.

On Tuesday, July 21, at around 6:30 p.m., Mr. Murphy, the former editor of the Independent newspaper based in East Hampton, died at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital. He had been hospitalized on Friday and suffered a heart attack on Saturday morning, from which he never regained consciousness.

His beloved wife, the Independent’s cartoonist and fellow reporter Karen Fredericks, was holding his hand as he died. Mr. Murphy had turned 70 on May 11.

Rick Murphy was a six-time winner of the New York Press Association Best Column award, as well as the winner of first-place awards from the National Newspaper Association and the Suburban Newspaper Association of America, and a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.

“I’ve been a newspaper junkie all my life, as was my dad,” Mr. Murphy reminisced in his weekly column. “I had a dual passion, sports and humor. The great New York newspaper columnists are the stuff of legends. Red Smith of The Times, perhaps the greatest, won a Pulitzer. He was at his best writing about horse racing. Hell, it’s probably his fault I got hooked on the ponies.”

It’s hard to remember a time when Mr. Murphy was not employed at one paper or another on the East End.

David Rattray, editor of The East Hampton Star, recalled on Wednesday, July 22, that Mr. Murphy’s first job, a half century ago, was as cartoonist for the now-defunct Sag Harbor Herald.

Jerry Della Femina, former owner of the Independent, said he hired Mr. Murphy as editor because “I didn’t know the first thing about the newspaper business. I hired Rick because I needed a real newsman to show me the way.” He added, “He did his job and he did it well.”

Mr. Della Femina saw in him “the spirit of all the great newsmen: the Jimmy Breslins, the Pete Hamills.” Mr. Murphy, he said, “liked to drink, he was tough as nails, and wrote a great column that was edgy and dangerous. He was fun, he was loose. He didn’t suffer fools. He was fearless.”

Aside from, as he liked to put it, “stirring shit up,” Mr. Murphy used his column to recount in colorful detail his childhood growing up in Brooklyn, son of Stanley Murphy and Eleanor Forcucci, and his summers spent at the family’s home on Howard Street in Sag Harbor.

“Ricky Murphy possessed a biting wit and the soul of a storyteller that made him the East End’s own version of Mark Twain,” Assemblyman Fred Thiele said on Wednesday, July 22. “I met him more than 50 years ago. He was a ‘summer kid’ in Sag Harbor. We shared a love of sports and of Sag Harbor. Murph made everyone laugh even then — although you were always hoping you wouldn’t be on the wrong end of his satire.”

“I’m also not one of the locals who rejoice because all the obnoxious city people leave town. There are plenty of obnoxious local people here, too, myself included,” Mr. Murphy once acknowledged in print.

“He was a gifted journalist,” Mr. Thiele continued. “I especially looked forward to his columns, again hoping not to be on the wrong end of his pen. We talked frequently about the state of the world and our place in it. I’ll miss those telephone calls from an old friend and his unique take on life.”

With his staying power in the world of East End journalism, he mentored many of the successful editors and reporters on the East End, including Lisa Finn of Patch. “Rick Murphy taught me everything about digging deep to get to the bottom of a scandal,” said Ms. Finn. “He’d do his homework. He taught me to cover local politics like nobody’s business.”

She continued, “Rick was a mentor, a true teacher who was never afraid to let another writer shine — he applauded the efforts and successes of other journalists. Beyond the work, Rick was a friend. We both came from Brooklyn, and the stories we shared were rich with laughter and memories.

“He was a renegade, the best investigative journalist I’ve ever known, tough as nails when it meant digging for the truth — and he was brilliant. But he also had the hugest heart and was loyal beyond words to his friends, to his beloved dogs, to his wife, Karen, the love of his life and true center of his world.”

She added, “If anyone knew how to really live every day with full-on enthusiasm and unfettered joy, Rick did. If you were lucky enough to share a newsroom with Rick Murphy, your life was never boring and forever changed. Days in the office were filled not just with deadlines and hard-hitting journalism but with music, stories, laughter, and flat-out fun. Anyone who was lucky enough to be his friend and colleague will miss him forever.”

Rick Murphy — whose full name was Henry Francis Murphy — graduated from Long Island University before settling for good on the South Fork.

Mr. Murphy and Ms. Fredericks married on May 4, 1996, and resided on Barnes Avenue in Springs, with their rescue dog, CocoBelle, another frequent subject of Mr. Murphy’s column — which was known to sometimes be controversial, right from the get-go.

“I was writing for The Sag Harbor Herald,” Mr. Murphy recalled in his column. “At the time, Paul Sidney, the voice of WLNG radio, was in all his glory. I nonchalantly interjected in my column that it was his jawbone framing the entrance to the [Sag Harbor Whaling] Museum. “Letters came pouring in. The phones rang off the hook. How dare I insult this man who did so much for so many? I figured my first column would be my last, until Paul himself stopped by the Herald office. ‘Kid,’ he said reassuringly, ‘always make sure you spell my name right.’”

“I’ve been around the block,” he wrote in another column. “‘Low Tidings,’ ‘Rick’s Place,’ ‘Rick’s Space.’ I did a long stint at The East Hampton Star under the ‘Relay’ heading, pretty much monopolizing it when I worked there. I’ve never written about the soup of the day.

Jerry Della Femina and I wrote columns for 16 straight years, and we never once wrote about the same topic. … Out here on the edge, there’s no room for pussies.”

“There were, until today, two distinctive, signature gravelly voices in the world,” said writer Joan Baum. “One is Dr. Fauci’s. The other was Rick Murphy’s.”

“He knew where all the bodies were buried,” said Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association in Montauk. “It was amazing. Talking to him was like getting a lesson in the last 30 years of East End politics.”

The funny and poignant parts of his marriage to Ms. Fredericks were another writing adventure for Mr. Murphy. “Karen and I are basically children, our maturity level stuck around 8. She draws cartoons. I read comic books and play with baseball cards,” he wrote.
“Karen is into yard sales. Me? Not so much. This is probably because I know very little about antiques. Before I met Karen my idea of an early American piece was a clapboard cupboard I bought at W.T. Grant before it became Caldor.”

A self-described child of the 1960s, Mr. Murphy loved to discuss the music, people, and mores of the period. “Rick would tell me things about baseball and The Grateful Dead that I didn’t know, saying it in a way that no one else could,” said Chris Hall of CP Complete, a longtime friend. “I can’t recall a conversation that didn’t end in laughter. I’m sure he’s laughing in heaven, listening to Jerry sing ‘Friend of the Devil,’ and — not so tactfully — mentioning to God that it’s ironic, given the venue.”

Mr. Della Femina summed it up: “Rick’s writing and direction made The Independent a small-town newspaper with big-town talents. The newspaper business and I will miss him.”

Those who wish to can honor Mr. Murphy’s memory with donations to the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons — Mr. Murphy once shaved his head to raise $5,000 for the shelter on Daniels Hole Road in East Hampton.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by sister Phyllis Howell and brother-in-law Robert Howell. He was predeceased by his brother, Stanley Murphy Jr., and his daughter, Anna Rose Murphy.

A celebration of his life will be held in the fall.

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