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Rick Murphy, Holy Cross religion professor connected to students with pop references

By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / September 21, 2011

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At Holy Cross where he taught religious studies for 28 years, Frederick J. Murphy still reveled in teaching introductory classes. He was an internationally known, prolific scholar who fought cancer for the past five years, but the chance to teach undergraduates filled him with excitement.

“He still got such a kick out of it,’’ said Alan J. Avery-Peck, chairman of the department of religious studies. “He loved working with those brand-new students.’’

Dr. Murphy, a Worcester native who trained to become a Jesuit before leaving the priesthood in 1980 and getting married, died Sept. 13 from complications of multiple myeloma. He was 62 and taught his last classes in the spring, on the Dead Sea Scrolls and an introductory class on the New Testament.

He was beloved by students for his ability to quote from the HBO show “Curb Your Enthusiasm’’ and old BBC comedies. He sought to connect his students to the minds of the ancients while infusing lectures with current events, sports statistics, and even regional humor.

“Whenever the Hebrew Bible would characterize God as frustrated and furious with the Israelites, Professor Murphy would look up from his lectern, smile knowingly at the class, and say, ‘God got wicked mad!’ ’’ said Matt Cortese, who graduated from College of the Holy Cross in 2009 and is now at Yale Divinity School.

“He knew how to make ancient and esoteric material accessible, better than any teacher I know,’’ Cortese said. “Those of us who hope to follow in his footsteps will be forever grateful for his example.’’

Dr. Murphy wrote numerous articles for major journals and seven books, including “Early Judaism: The Exile to the Time of Jesus.’’ He also wrote, “Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its Worlds,’’ scheduled for publication next year.

The son of a Worcester electrician, Dr. Murphy graduated from St. John’s High School and spent his teen years serving dinner to Jesuit priests at Holy Cross. He studied math at Harvard, where he was a Navy ROTC student during the late 1960s, according to Avery-Peck.

When he graduated from Harvard with a math degree in 1971 amid antiwar demonstrations, ROTC had been forced off campus and Dr. Murphy felt a call to the priesthood. He joined the Jesuits and studied at Weston College School of Theology and then at the University of London in 1973. He eventually earned his doctorate in 1984 from Harvard.

“He was both a brilliant scholar and one of our finest teachers,’’ said the Holy Cross president, the Rev. Michael C. McFarland. “He was always upbeat, always encouraging and available.’’

Dr. Murphy was chosen to lead many committees at Holy Cross during his tenure, including the search committees for two deans of the college and for two endowed chairs.

He left the priesthood in 1980. His wife, Leslie, said he was “getting rumblings’’ while studying in London that perhaps he wanted a family. They met when he returned to Boston and she was working as a cook at the Jesuit community where he lived.

“He was incredibly good, sweet, and handsome. He just was so intelligent and good,’’ Leslie said. They were married 31 years and had two children.

His devotion to his family was well-known among his colleagues. At his funeral Mass on Saturday at Christ the King Church in Worcester, Avery-Peck told how colleagues recalled attending a conference in San Francisco with Dr. Murphy when his children were young. The academics were enjoying dinner in a fancy restaurant with a stunning view of the city. But Dr. Murphy was not enjoying himself until one of his friends told him to go ahead and call his children before their bedtime.

Among Dr. Murphy’s favorite hobbies was flying airplanes. He got his pilot’s license around age 50, his wife said, but did not get to fly much because the family needed to conserve money for their children’s college fund.

Dr. Murphy faced his cancer diagnosis without fear or self-pity, she said. “He was incredibly accepting and strong,’’ she said.

Multiple myeloma left him with painful compression fractures in his bones. His 6-foot-2 frame shrank by several inches. Treatments left him almost blind from cataracts he had to have removed. Last spring, he could not walk far on campus without collapsing from fatigue, but kept teaching anyway. When his daughter, Rebecca, married this summer, he walked her down the aisle.

His ability to cope with his illness astounded friends and colleagues.

“When I dared tell Rick how humbled I was by his ability to manage all of this while he taught, while he continued to be a wonderful husband and father, while he wrote his seventh book, he looked at me, literally startled by my comment,’’ Avery-Peck said in a eulogy. “Everyone, he observed, has the things that keep them busy.’’

Avery-Peck offered words from a Jewish prayer known as the Kaddish at Dr. Murphy’s funeral.

“I think Rick would have liked this prayer, because he lived his life, even the past five years, in the firm knowledge that, whatever his personal situation, the world is in fact a great and good and beautiful place, that all we need to do is to look around to see the natural magnificence and the human deeds, deeds such as Rick’s, in which we might identify God’s presence,’’ he said.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Rebecca McCormick, Dr. Murphy leaves his son, Jeremy; his sisters, Patricia Dunlop and Deborah Lacey; and several nieces and nephews.

Burial was in St. John’s Cemetery in Worcester.