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William H. "Bill" Murdy

Kay Hinton

William H. “Bill” Murdy was keenly interested in the adaptation and growth of plants in their natural habitat and also in his own garden, and that attunement to cultivation is an apt symbol of his life, one that leaves a legacy of service across Emory University and beyond. Murdy—dean of Oxford College emeritus and Charles Howard Candler Professor of Biology emeritus—died March 19, 2014, at his home in Oxford; he was eighty-five.

Murdy joined the Emory faculty in 1959 as an instructor in biology. He chaired the Department of Biology twice, from 1971 to 1974 and from 1983 to 1987. In 1987 he was named Charles Howard Candler Professor of Biology, the same year he was appointed dean of Oxford by then–Emory President James T. Laney. In 1990 Murdy received the Thomas Jefferson Award for his service to Emory.

Tenure as Oxford’s dean

In his book An Uncommon Place: Oxford College 1914–2000 Oxford Dean for Campus Life Joe Moon writes that when Murdy arrived at Oxford in 1987, he immediately sought to address facility maintenance, faculty salaries, and higher-than-acceptable student attrition. When he retired in 1999, says Moon, he left “an impressive legacy of plant improvement and expansion, record student enrollment, improved faculty and staff salaries, and better administrative linkage with the Atlanta campus.”

Under Murdy’s leadership, Oxford’s visibility as one of “two doors” to Emory was raised and, by 1999, total applications to Oxford had doubled and entering students’ academic credentials had dramatically increased. Ties to the university were strengthened with Murdy’s initiative to establish a daily shuttle connecting the Atlanta and Oxford campuses.

Murdy also reinstated varsity sports at Oxford, boosted student leadership programs, and led key property acquisitions, including what is now the Oxhouse Science Center, and extensive improvements to residence halls and the physical plant in general. The campus landscape received greater attention, especially the venerable trees on Oxford’s Quad.

Influence on environmental efforts

Those on the Quad were not the only trees whose preservation was ensured by Murdy’s attention and care. In 1986, he and Eloise Carter, Oxford professor of biology, published “A Report on the Status of Forested Land of Emory University.” Known more widely now as the Murdy-Carter report, the landmark treatise assessed the location and status of Emory’s natural forests, cautioning that the university’s holdings included “unique, near-pristine hardwood forests with rare and diverse species” that should be preserved undisturbed. This report, said a writer in a 2004 Emory Report article, “continues to be a guiding force in Emory’s land use and discussions.”

Murdy served as president of the University Senate from 1986 to 1987. Following recommendations made during that time, the senate instituted its Committee on the Environment in 1990, and Murdy served on the ad hoc committee that prepared the committee’s charge.

Fourteen years after the Murdy-Carter report, he and Carter teamed up again to bring attention to local flora, publishing Guide to the Plants of Granite Outcrops, which chronicles the plants of locations such as Stone Mountain and Arabia Mountain—rock habitats that contain many species found in no other environment. The book remains a primary resource for understanding and preserving these unique plants.

Civic contributions

When Murdy became dean, he and his wife, Nancy, moved to Oxford and lived in the President’s House, the historic home on Wesley Street just north of the Oxford campus that has served both Emory College presidents and Oxford College deans. Upon retirement, the Murdys bought another historic home on Wesley Street, Hopkins House, and remained in Oxford. He was a longtime member of the Oxford City Council and served the city as mayor from 2005 to 2007.

He was a life member of the board of trustees of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, a trustee of the Nature Conservancy of Georgia, and a member of the Oxford College Board of Counselors and the Covington Kiwanis Club.

A native of Fairhaven, Mass., who never lost his distinctive New England accent, Murdy received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts and a PhD from Washington University.

John Wegner, Emory senior lecturer in environmental sciences, knew Murdy and worked with him on the Campus Land Use Plan in 2005. Wegner says, “Bill was an important mentor to me and one of the most gentle men I have ever come across.”

Bill McKibben, Oxford professor of mathematics emeritus, served as Murdy’s first dean of academic affairs.

“During [my service as academic dean] I came to marvel at his many fine qualities: personal, moral, and intellectual. . . . His character and judgment were beyond compare. The patience, integrity, and equanimity he showed in working with faculty and staff stand out in my memory as a hallmark of his administration,” McKibben says. “He was an optimist of the first order, and he was inspiring in his own characteristic, unassuming way. I am grateful to have worked with a man of such great heart and mind.”

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