‘A long and fruitful life’ for Lou Murphy

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Katie Scarvey
Lee Clement Piper loved hearing about the final words of her mother, Lou Murphy.
When Piper asked one of her mother’s nurses about what she’d said before she died, the nurse replied, “She was trying to get me to go back to school.”
That attitude ó that unflagging interest in other people ó may be what people miss most about Murphy, who also shared her prodigious artistic talent with the community.
Murphy, 87, died Thursday at the Trinity Oaks Retirement Community residence she shared with her husband, Dr. Lynch Murphy.
Upon hearing of her death, her long-time friend Frank Montgomery summed up the thoughts of many: “She has lived a long and fruitful life and has been very important to many people.”
A beloved Salisbury actress, artist and grand dame, Murphy stayed active until recently. In April, only hours after learning she had pancreatic cancer, she warmly greeted guests at an exhibition of her paintings at Center for Faith and the Arts.
Murphy was born in Texas, in 1922 and grew up on the west coast, in Pasadena and Los Angeles, and attended the University of Southern California and UCLA, majoring in speech.
She served in World War II in the Navy as a WAVE for 16 months, working mostly as a legal secretary on a base in what is now the Silicon Valley. She was one of only 125 women among 3,000 men there.
“I had a good war,” she once said of the experience. “People today don’t understand what it’s like for everybody to be behind an effort.”
She met her first husband, Jim Cook, when she was serving in San Francisco. They moved to Mississippi, where she finished college at the University of Southern Mississippi.
When her marriage to Jim broke up, Lou moved back to Los Angeles. She then met Hayden Clement, her second husband.
She and Hayden started their family in Los Angeles. They had a daughter, Lee, and a son, Hayden. (Lee Piper lives in Salisbury, and Hayden Clement lives in Los Angeles.)
Piper remembers her mother working for the Civil Rights movement during that time. “She worked in Watts, through the church,” Piper remembers, during a time when many were afraid to venture into the area.
The family moved to Salisbury, Hayden’s hometown, in 1971, after spending a year in England. Hayden died in 1981, and Murphy later married Dr. Lynch Murphy, a Salisbury gastroenterologist.
After moving to Salisbury, Murphy quickly became a vibrant part of the cultural life of Salisbury.
An actor with Piedmont Players Theatre, she had memorable roles in “Foxfire” and “Walking Across Egypt.” One of her favorite roles was playing the queen in “Lion in Winter.”
She started the United Arts Council and was active in the Rowan Art Guild. In 1995, Murphy exhibited her work at Waterworks Visual Arts Center, where she often taught life drawing classes. She has painted several angels for the Angels of Salisbury display, and one of her paintings was featured on the Rowan Helping Ministries honor card in 1996.
Murphy had countless friends and admirers in Salisbury.
“She was one of the most brilliant women I’ve ever known, and one of the most generous,” Claudia Galup said. “I thought of her as a second mother.”
“She was a leader, whatever she did,” said Barbara Setzer, who knew Murphy from attending St. Luke’s Episcopal Church with her and from their association at Waterworks Visual Arts Center.
Gary Thornburg was a teenager when Murphy and her family moved to Salisbury.
He remembers, as a senior in high school, being cast in the first local play Murphy was in, “The Curious Savage.” That was 1972. Murphy went on to be in 15 plays with Piedmont Players Theatre and was also involved with St. Thomas Players and, most recently, Lee Street Theatre.
“She was just dear,” Thornburg said. “She never talked down to me because I was a kid.”
Thornburg remembers her opening her home to people after rehearsals.
“She was just so gracious, and God, she could cook. She loved to entertain. It was always fun to be around her.”
That sentiment is echoed by Montgomery, who called her “a grand hostess.”
Montgomery knew Murphy through local theater as well as through St. Luke’s, where she was an active member.
Murphy, he said, “had endless energy and was always willing to expand her horizons.”
Montgomery was in the cast of “Look Homeward Angel” with Murphy ó who played his mother.
“I had to die each night of tuberculosis in her lap,” he said. “I tried to make her cry every night ó and she did.”
Thornburg also got to experience Murphy playing his mother on stage. Last November, they acted together in a Lee Street Theatre stage reading of a Horton Foote play called “The Man Who Climbed Pecan Trees.”
“She was a wonderful actress,” Thornburg said.
The director of that production, Dr. Jim Epperson, said Murphy was a joy to work with.
“She had a great talent for life, as well as the arts,” he said.
“She was one of a kind,” said Len Clark, who also knew Murphy through the theater.
Piper says she is grateful that family members and friends had a chance to tell her mother how they felt about her.
“You’ve loved, you’ve been loved, you’ve raised children and grandchildren,” she told her mother. “You’ve created, you’ve educated, you’ve traveled, you’ve done everything a person can do, and you’ve done it with style and panache.”
Even in the final painful months of her life, her mother continued to read a book a day, Piper says. She asked Robert Jones to find a favorite from years earlier, called “I Heard the Owl Call My Name,” which is about dying.
Jones counted Murphy as one of his most fascinating friends.
“When I’d be at a party, I’d tell people, ‘If you want to talk to somebody interesting, go over there and sit next to Lou Clement (Murphy).’ She really had an amazing life.
“She always just saw the good things in life. She was one of these people who didn’t really talk about herself unless you got her to; she was always more interested in what you were doing.”
And that speaks to the philosophy of life that Murphy shared with the Post in April:
“My daddy taught me the golden rule ó ‘Do unto others (as you would have them do unto you).’ It’s trite as it can be, but I really try to be fair to people. I try to think about their point of view.”
– – –
The family will receive friends at Lee Piper’s residence, 302 South Ellis Street, Salisbury, from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 6. The memorial service will be held at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 7.
Memorials may be made to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 131 West Council Street, Salisbury, NC 28144.