RICHFORD — Michael McMurphy was pretty much just a regular kid growing up in Richford in the 1950s and 60s. It is well beyond doubtful that anyone could have predicted his knighthood.
One of four children to parents Allen and Emily, McMurphy went to school, played baseball and basketball, hayed with local farmers, and occasionally helped out in his father’s photography and print shop.
“Probably a pretty typical life for someone growing up in Richford,” said McMurphy in a recent interview.
According to his parents, they didn’t necessarily have large ambitions for McMurphy, though they could readily see he was smart and hardworking.
“He did quite well,” said Emily.
Since he graduated from Richford High School in 1965, McMurphy has gone on to have full and fairly unique experiences. These accomplishments – which include military service, the U.S. Department of Energy, leadership within a French nuclear company, and a recent knighting by the president of France – were acknowledged by U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen on Nov. 14, just over a month after McMurphy retired at age 67.
The exciting, significant and international opportunities McMurphy has had, he said, are due to hard work and the values instilled in him by his parents, right at home in Richford.
“My parents taught me everything I needed,” he said.
Upon graduation from high school, McMurphy attended the U.S. Air Force Academy in Boulder, Colo. and graduated as a second lieutenant. He served active duty for 10 years and continued serving as an Air Force Reserve for years afterward – he also taught within the Air Force for a number of years.
McMurphy went on to earn advanced degrees from the University of Texas School of Law and St. Mary’s University, and then started a career that would grow exponentially: renewable, and particularly nuclear, energy.
McMurphy’s first worked within the U.S. Department of Energy in Tennessee, where he supported the department’s Uranium Enrichment Enterprise. After four years, he moved to the vicinity of Washington, D.C.
“I started working for a large French-owned company,” he said, adding that the company, COGEMA, Inc., focused on nuclear and, more recently, wind-powered, renewable energy.
McMurphy began as general counsel, but he moved up the ranks of the U.S. section of the company and became the president and CEO in 1988. The company became AREVA at that point.
“Basically I was running that part of the company in the U.S. for 20 years,” he said.
McMurphy did go to Paris, France in 2008, where he served as the only American on the company’s executive committee, called the Front End Business Group, for four and a half years.
“I was responsible for some pretty interesting things,” said McMurphy. Up to his retirement, he oversaw uranium enrichment and manufacturing for reactors, interacted with U.S. Congress and various presidential administrations on energy policy and served on the board of directors for the Nuclear Energy Institute policy organization.
In the midst of his career moves, McMurphy also had a family. He married his wife, Maureen, and had three children: Matthew, Kevin and Patrick. Patrick passed away after a tragic accident at age 23 while an actor in New York City, and the McMurphy’s set up a fund in his honor: the Patrick Michael McMurphy Memorial Foundation, looking to promote the arts.
As a result of his experiences, McMurphy is a strong proponent of nuclear energy. “As long as there aren’t aging issues that can’t be overcome,” he said.
McMurphy added that nuclear energy is hugely helpful in lowering carbon dioxide emissions. “Nuclear makes huge contributions,” he said.
The U.S. currently has around 100 nuclear reactors – one fewer after Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant closed in Brattleboro last week. Still, the nation has the largest number of nuclear reactors in the world despite using nuclear as only 20 percent of the country’s energy makeup.
Seeing the differences between the U.S. and Europe in terms of energy, said McMurphy, has been “absolutely fascinating.” While our energy policy often changes with each presidential administration, countries such as France put energy policy in place, and then keep it in place.
“The energy policies stay in place for a long time,” said McMurphy. “You just don’t see that here.” When asked if he thought the European model was better, McMurphy responded, “I sure do.”
Because of all the work he has done for France and the U.S. in the nuclear energy realm, McMurphy was knighted by President Nicolas Sarkozy, first appointed to the rank of Chevalier in the Ordre national du Mérite and then to the rank of Chevalier in the Légion d’honneur – the country’s highest civilian honor.
This honor was mentioned by Van Hollen in November and read into the Congressional Record, among other accolades.
“I offer my heartfelt congratulations to him on the occasion of his retirement,” Van Hollen said of McMurphy. “I wish him much happiness in this new phase of his life.”
In retirement, McMurphy plans to travel, visit his family, and continue serving on the few boards on which he remains. In the meantime, he’s in awe at how highly others think of him.
“For me, it’s absolutely fascinating because I get credit for a lot things a lot of other people do for me,” said McMurphy. Those who deserve the credit, added McMurphy, are people like those he recently saw at the 70th anniversary Battle of the Bulge.
“That was really very humbling,” he said.
McMurphy went on to point out that all he has is due to how his parents raised him. “The work ethic, the empathy for people, kindness, honor, and probably more important than all of that, integrity,” he said.
McMurphy added that humility was also a value right up there with integrity.
“I can’t emphasize the import of the values my parents imparted – incredibly people,” McMurphy said.
Allen and Emily, 89 and 88, respectively, are proud of their son. “We think he did very well,” said Emily.
“We’re pretty proud,” said Allen.
He recounted one story in which McMurphy’s ability to excel shone through the mundane. “When he was in high school and he’d sit there watching the television or whatever, and we’d get after him [to do his homework],”Allen said.
McMurphy would wait until just before bed to take out his schoolwork. “In about 10 or 15 minutes, he would get that homework done,” said his father, chuckling.
Though McMurphy grew up in a small town in northernmost Vermont, he said that didn’t stop him, nor should it stop others, from thinking big.
“The kids in Richford need to understand that it’s a big world out there, and there’ a lot of opportunity,” he said. “They can build their future.”