Francis J. Murphy II
Francis J. “Frank” Murphy II, who became a local fixture of Democratic politics after moving to Keene in 1995, died March 23, 2020, at the Applewood Nursing Home in Winchester after a long illness. He was 79.
Murphy grew up an only child in a lace-curtain Irish-American household in the Bronx, the son and grandson of architects who designed and built major civic projects by dint of talent and political savvy in the murky waters of Gotham contracting.
Named for his uncle, his father’s business partner, he attended local schools and enjoyed a brief romance with formal higher education at Fordham University before striking out for Alaska in his early 20s, driving from New York to Fairbanks, with a girlfriend in search of her father.
Murphy, a large and gregarious youth who loved to laugh and carouse, cast lines from wooden fishing boats and pulled taps in wooden bars in the Land of the Midnight Sun before the oil boom shrank its vast frontier. The native New Yorker became an unlikely outdoorsman, hearkening back to the days when his hungry immigrant forebears poached pheasant and deer in Van Cortland Park.
He also plunged into Alaskan politics, volunteering in local campaigns, working as a stringer for a paper serving the state’s far-flung indigenous communities and eventually moving to the state capital, Juneau. He worked for House Speaker Hugh Malone, another liberal transplant from the Empire State, during the period a landmark agreement was struck after volatile debates to balance the lure of oil wealth with a progressive plan to share the petroleum payoff with every Alaskan.
During his time in Juneau, Murphy supervised a group home for wayward youth, making a lasting impression through countless kind gestures toward young men who, like Frank himself, had suffered abandonment and loss.
In the early 1980s, Geraldine Walsh, the chain-smoking paternal aunt who had raised him after his mother began a losing struggle with mental illness, underwent surgery and Murphy moved back to the family home to care for her.
During a leaf-peeping road trip to New England, with all 275 pounds of Falstaffian Frank squeezed behind the wheel, Walsh fell in love with Keene and convinced her nephew to sell the manorial brick manse on West 246th Street and move to the Granite State. The two set up house on Greenwood Avenue, where Walsh spent the last two years of her life.
In Keene, Murphy reveled in the intense electoral activity around local politics as well as its outsized role in picking presidents in the first-in-the-nation primary. He volunteered to do anything the Democratic Party needed, according to his longtime friend and political associate, JoAnn Fenton.
“Whatever needed to be done, Frank did it,” said Fenton. “Canvassing, phone-banking, holding signs at the polls, writing letters to the editor, calling in to talk shows on the local radio stations, training volunteers, helping with events and fundraisers, or manning the campaign office.”
Murphy, she added, was supportive of her son, Donovan, when he decided to run for state representative from Keene in 2016. Despite being limited by a stroke suffered three years earlier, he made calls and helped with mailings during the successful campaign.
Murphy served as chair of the Keene City Democrats from 1999 to 2005 and worked on many local political committees. He received the Russell Award as Cheshire County Democrat of the Year after stepping down as the Keene chair.
“Frank was devoted to getting Democrats elected because he was for the underdog, for the working class and for those without a voice,” said Kathy O’Donnell, who succeeded him as Keene chair and is planning a memorial event to be held for Murphy in the coming months.
“Having worked with special needs children, the welfare and funding of children’s issues was one of his favorite causes. He greatly respected those who had served his country, including those in his family who had sacrificed their lives,” she said.
One of those, his first cousin Lt. Col. Mortimer Lenane O’Connor, died in Vietnam in 1968 while leading the 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry of the 1st Division on a combat mission in the Iron Triangle north of Saigon. Murphy often told the story of his cousin, then a West Point cadet, visiting the Murphy home in Riverdale and sitting with him for hours as he lay abed with rheumatic fever.
Murphy took special care to talk to each of O’Connor’s six children during the funeral service at West Point, sharing what he felt about their father. “When Mort died, something went out of me,” said Murphy. “And I vowed never to see another life wasted in war.”
While living in Keene, Murphy drove veterans to medical appointments and stood with Keene peace vigil protesters opposing the war in Iraq. He was also a regular volunteer at the Hundred Nights Shelter.
Murphy loved genealogy, history — especially Irish history — books, conversation and Jameson’s served neat. Among his many hobbies were rocks. Every room of his house, otherwise stocked with dark, Victorian furniture, featured crystals, gems, minerals and fossils on display. Active with the Keene Mineral Club, he hiked New Hampshire’s mountains in search of new finds and published articles of lapidary interest.
In the last years of his life, nearly immobile, Murphy received help from many friends, especially his neighbors Sarah Ellsworth and Art Heller, whose children, Ariana and Perin, he loved with equal measure.
“Living next to Frank was always surprising and, for the last seven years, often challenging,” said Ellsworth. “But he was a great neighbor with a generous if cantankerous heart. He was part of my family’s life for 20 years and I will miss him.”
Bonnie Altenheim, the ex-girlfriend he drove to Alaska, said Murphy’s greatest passion in life was helping others. Long after they parted ways, he continued to help and support her, and when he moved back to New York he became an indispensable aid to her own aging parents.
“People used to call him Saint Frank because of the way he took care of other people, even though he didn’t take good care of himself,” she said.
Murphy’s ashes will be scattered on family plots in Queens, Valhalla and West Point, N.Y., along his favorite Granite State walking trails and in the Alaskan wild.