“Mr. SI”: J.B. Murphy

In its 150-year history, the SI faculty has included a number of people who bled red and blue, many of whom were or are alumni or alumnae. But the teacher who has earned the title “Mr. S.I.” never attended St. Ignatius. To earn that moniker, he simply put in 50 years on the job, serving as teacher, coach and athletic director (from 1953 to 1967).

Few people know that John Bernard Murphy (universally called J.B.) almost didn’t live past his 24th birthday. He entered St. Patrick’s seminary after graduating from St. Paul’s grammar school, but one year from ordination, J.B. learned that he had bleeding ulcers, and his doctor told him he would die within six months.

He left the seminary and spent the next year and half struggling to recover. When he felt strong enough, he decided to work to help his parents last out the Depression. He sought work as a Latin teacher, given his seminary training. But when he started work on August 16, 1939, at SI, he found himself assigned to history and PE classes. Two years later, he was assigned to teach math when a scholastic from Spokane called in sick a day before classes began. “The principal looked through his faculty, and I was the only one who had four years of high school math. No one on the faculty had college math,” recalled Murphy in an interview published in the summer 1989 issue of Genesis II. “He said, ‘Murphy, you’re teaching five classes of math on Monday at 8:30 a.m.’”

Students soon learned that he was a tough disciplinarian. “I had a volatile temper, but I worked awfully hard when I started teaching to cool it. The very first days I was teaching, one of my students — now a respected lawyer — was making fun of me sotto voce, speaking behind his hand. In those days, the teacher’s desk was on a platform. I pushed my desk off the platform into the arms of this boy. I went down, picked him out of his desk, took him outside and lifted him by his shirt against the lockers. I said, ‘I’m an Irishman and you’re a disturbing little runt. If you do that again, I’ll separate your head from your shoulders.’ Forty-seven years later, he told me that he respected me for what I did.”

His close friend and fellow teacher, Frank Corwin (“Uncle Frank” to the students and faculty), tempered this image by noting that “between J.B. and Fr. Tom Reed, our principal at the time, those two knew every family in every parish in San Francisco. J.B. knew everything about each boy at SI, not just the boys in his class. He would know if they had any family problems, such as an alcoholic parent or monetary issues. Because we had no real counselors in those days, J.B. would often go to a student’s home to help a boy with family problems. He put in many 16-hour days doing this.”

He married Edna Ford in 1940 and they had four children, including Chuck Murphy ’61, who has taught math at SI since 1965. Three Murphys made the cover of Company magazine (a national magazine for American Jesuits and friends) when it pictured J.B., Chuck, and J.B.’s grandson Matthew Murphy ’89 when he enrolled at SI. The first coed class also included Matt’s sister, Marielle Murphy ’93, who enrolled the year her grandfather retired.

During the war years, J.B. became a favorite of many of the students. “They hung onto us and their parents in those days,” he noted. “All of the students had tremendous respect for the Jesuits and were continually afraid that they were going to lose the lay teachers they dearly loved to the draft.”

During the war, battleships sailed in and out of San Francisco Bay daily. “You lost your students’ attention as soon as a war ship sailed by the Golden Gate. All the boys would look out the window at the ship coming in, and you could see the anguish and pathos in their faces. You lost their attention immediately. It was a poor teacher who tried to bring them back to attention; after the ship sailed past, you could recapture their attention.”

J.B. gained coaching experience with the Young Men’s Institute swimming team (the precursor to the CYO), and he became SI’s third athletic director in 1953. He found himself in contentious meetings with the AAA’s other athletic directors, most of whom were from public schools. “When they pushed him, he would push right back again,” recalled Frank Corwin. “He wasn’t afraid to speak up.”

But as an athletic director, he is perhaps most known for never missing a game. And for most of those games, he would wear his trademark yellow tie. He began wearing it in the early 1950s when René Herrerias ’44 coached basketball for SI before leaving to coach at UC Berkeley. “We were guests at the tournament of champions at Cal,” said J.B. “Against all odds, our team won every game during the morning and afternoon. At dinner, René ribbed me about my flashy yellow tie that I was wearing. That night we won the championship. After ribbing me all day about the yellow tie, he said, ‘Any game I coach for the rest of my life and your life, I want you to wear that yellow tie.”

Pay at SI was low, so J.B. took on several other jobs to support his family. At Hamm’s Brewery, he worked on the bottling line during his summers. “I was on the job for three hours when my supervisor asked me why all the other workers were calling me ‘Mister.’ I told him these boys, students and athletes at SI, knew me as their athletic director.” With that, the foreman promoted J.B. to line boss. Even though he made more working for Hamm’s for three months than working for SI for nine, he stayed at SI because, as his son Chuck noted, “there’s a real mesh between his philosophy of education and Jesuit philosophy. I’ve heard Jesuits speak of Ignatian values, and it’s obvious to me that they were speaking about the way my father taught.”

In his last decade at SI, J.B. taught one class of freshmen for two periods, helping them adjust to life in high school. In 1973, football coach Gil Haskell ’61 created the J.B. Murphy Award, which, each year, the team gives to the SI football player who best exemplifies the Ignatian spirit through inspirational leadership on and off the field. Upon his retirement in 1989, the school honored him by naming the football field “J.B. Murphy Field.”