When Mike Murphy first came to Charlottesville, he didn’t plan to stay for long.
Little did he know in 1988, when he began attending the University of Virginia on a track scholarship, that 31 years later he would retire from a public service career after leading the city through one of the toughest parts of its history.
He stepped down as deputy city manager Friday after 25 years with the city.
A broken ankle has kept him out of City Hall and the public eye for the past several weeks, but he took time to speak with a reporter before hanging up his hat.
“I’m one of the people who never left,” Murphy said with a grin, clad in a National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum T-shirt and jeans rather than his typical button-up shirt and tie.
Murphy’s journey to city leadership came from a decision focused on family.
He was offered scholarships at UVa and Stanford University and had to choose. He picked the Cavaliers because he wanted his family in Newark, Delaware, to be able to attend his track meets.
“I knew if I went to Stanford, they’d never really see anything,” he said.
Murphy originally started taking business classes with a plan to attend law school. He quickly found out that wasn’t the track he wanted.
“I started taking those classes and I took the first round of accounting and economics, and I thought, I’m not loving this,” he said.
Murphy found his way to a master’s of counseling education and landed an internship with the city in August 1994 with “every intention of going back to the beach in Delaware.”
But in May 1995, he got a full-time job in the Community Attention program, a social services effort that aims to help at-risk youth. He rose through the ranks, working in several city programs in the community.
Life was running steady leading up to 2010. At the time, the city was going through a turnover in senior leadership as City Manager Gary O’Connell retired, as well as other high-ranking officials.
Prior to the changeover, O’Connell started a leadership program to ease the transition. Murphy stepped into the role of director of human services.
In 2016, Murphy got a call from then-City Manager Maurice Jones and was brought in as assistant city manager.
He said that taking the role was a tough decision because he enjoyed working closely with the people in the city’s social programs.
“I was always there because I wanted to make a difference,” he said. “It did bring me a little further away from the work and it caused me to need to reframe how what I’m doing is providing that help to people. It definitely took some thought.”
And then, Aug. 12, 2017, happened. Murphy was stationed in the Wells Fargo building with high-ranking officials, getting updates on clashes in the street and helping direct the city’s messaging.
In the aftermath of the deadly rally, the new City Council announced in 2018 that it wouldn’t renew Jones’ contract and the city manager left for a job in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Then, the process for appointing an interim city manager went awry and the person selected for the job withdrew from the process.
That’s when the council turned to Murphy and former Assistant City Manager Leslie Beauregard.
“My frame at the time was to go in and say you should have talked to us earlier, not about the job but what about needs to happen and how we can help you,” he said. “They should have had us in there.”
Later that same night, Murphy was asked to take over as interim city manager and took the job.
“I knew at the time that there was a great deal of risk involved, not just personally but for the community,” he said. “There was no way to see or know ahead of time what that first anniversary was going to be like.”
Murphy helped the city through the first anniversary of the Unite the Right rally. He crafted a budget that included a multimillion dollar investment in public housing and held the ship steady until Tarron Richardson was selected as city manager in May.
“I don’t think when you’re responsible for something of that magnitude that you can only tread water,” he said. “I’m happy to have been of service in a time when the community needed some leadership.”
After Richardson’s arrival, Murphy was appointed deputy city manager.
His retirement was announced on Tuesday and he will remain on the payroll through Oct. 31, 2020.
Asked about the timing, Murphy would only say, “It’s time for me.”
“This has been a difficult couple of years,” he said. “I think it was the right time for me to pack it up.”
City Attorney John Blair said he always enjoyed work with Murphy.
“He had a commitment to trying to bring different perspectives into every discussion,” Blair said. “Mike was a pleasure to work with when he was the interim city manager and he always took our office’s counsel.”
Councilor Heather Hill lauded Murphy’s institutional knowledge.
“Mike Murphy has been a strong partner as well as committed and compassionate public servant, effectively leading the organization during a uniquely challenging time,” she said. “The institutional knowledge he possesses as well as the countless relationships he has fostered cannot be replaced.”
Murphy doesn’t know what’s next for him. He will always look back at his time with the city as a time of personal growth.
“There was always some new thing. I was always getting the opportunity to do something different and change and grow,” he said. “Every step of the way there was something I loved about the job.”