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Posted: March 24, 2014 4:51 p.m.

Murdy leaves strong legacy at Oxford

Photo courtesy of Oxford College/

Former Oxford College dean Bill Murdy

A prominent member of Emory University, and former dean of Oxford College, William H. “Bill” Murdy passed away after a bought with Alzheimer’s disease March 19.

Murdy served as Oxford’s dean and was the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Biology emeritus, serving with Emory for 40 years. He retired in 1999 and died at age 85 in his Oxford home.

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

According to Joe Moon, Oxford College Dean for Campus life, in his book An Uncommon Place: Oxford College 1914 – 2000, Murdy immediately sought to address facility maintenance, faculty salaries, and higher-than-acceptable student attrition upon his arrival. When he retired in 1999, Moon said, Murdy 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 feeder schools to Emory University 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 literally connecting the Atlanta and Oxford campuses through the establishment of a daily shuttle.

When he arrived in 1987, Oxford offered intramural sports, but intercollegiate competition had ceased a few years prior; Murdy reinstated varsity sports, now an essential part of Oxford student life. Oxford’s programs in student leadership burgeoned.

The college made key property acquisitions, including what is now the Oxhouse Science Center. Extensive improvements were made to residence halls and the physical plant in general. The campus landscape received greater attention, especially the venerable trees of Oxford’s quad.

In 1986, he and Eloise Carter, Oxford College professor of biology, published a report entitled, “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. In the 1990s, he was appointed by then Georiga Governor Zell Miller to the state’s Preservation 2000 Program advisory committee.

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 (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2000). Their book chronicles the plants of locations such as Stone Mountain and Arabia Mountain—rock habitats that contain many species that are found in no other environment. The book remains a primary resource for understanding and preserving these unique plants.

When Murdy became dean, he and his wife Nancy moved to Oxford and lived in the Presidents’ House, the historic home on Wesley Street just north of the Oxford College 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 long-time member of the Oxford City Council, and from 2005 to 2007, he served the city as mayor.

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.

He was a native of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, who never lost his distinctive New England accent. He received a BS degree from the University of Massachusetts and a PhD degree from Washington University.

Murdy’s death leaves many friends and colleagues from both campuses to contemplate his numerous contributions. John Wegner, Emory College senior lecturer in environmental sciences, knew Murdy and worked with him on the Campus Land Use Plan in 2005.

"Bill was an important mentor to me and one of the most gentle men I have ever come across," Wegner said.

Bill McKibben, Oxford College professor of mathematics emeritus, who served as Murdy’s first dean of academic affairs, added to those sentiments.

“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,” McKibben said. “The patience, integrity and equanimity he showed in working with faculty and staff stand out in my memory as a hallmark of his administration…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.”

A memorial service will be held on Wednesday at 11 a.m. in Old Church, located at the intersection of Wesley and Fletcher streets in Oxford.

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