With a tough exterior and a genuinely warm heart, Thomas Joseph Murphy embraced life with robust intensity. His interests were wide and varied. The thread that ran through all his activities-growing bonsai, talking politics, entertaining, tinkering in the garage-was a joyous, raucous celebration of life.

Tom Murphy began life as a fighter. The only triplet to survive birth, he would lose his parents, an Irish immigrant couple in San Francisco, and become an orphan by five. His childhood years were traumatic and scarring, and the scrappy street urchin who joined the Navy at 19 the day after Pearl Harbor came out of the war years determined to make a life for himself that mattered.

He came to Santa Barbara in 1953 with his wife, Elsie, and young family to accept the position of director of special education for the Santa Barbara School District, a position he held until his retirement 34 years later in 1987. Referred to as the father of special education in Santa Barbara, Tom’s creative and energetic approach resulted in many innovative programs and ideas pioneered within the field. From the use of the hydraulic lift for wheelchair access to buses to the first high school program for pregnant teens, he was interested in finding solutions that served the community-red tape be damned. “Why not?” was his creed, and action was his modus operandi.

Tom’s dedication to special education went beyond the Santa Barbara School District. “Mr. Murphy,” as his colleagues always referred to him out of respect, was involved in the creation of Alpha Resource Center (ARC)-an organization devoted to supporting children with special needs and their families-and ARC Summer Camp for Retarded Children. He was also a boardmember of the California Council for Retarded Children. Tom traveled to the state and national capitals many times throughout his career in an advisory capacity. Teaching teachers was his passion and he brought his dramatic flair to the classroom to keep things lively.

I hold in my memory one image of my father that typifies his spirit. He comes roaring into a room full of kids and adults at a Parma School function. It’s noisy and a little chaotic, but he captures the mood and gains the attention of all assembled. They begin calling out to him, shouting, “Tom! Tom!” They adore him; he makes them laugh with sheer joy. That was his gift: to meet each person right where they stood, regardless of stature, education, or ability, and convey caring without patronizing, love without sentimentality.

Tom’s other passions in life were his friends and family. He was happiest surrounded by loved ones, at holidays, birthdays, or any time that called for a party. Through the tumultuous years of the ’60s and ’70s, he was never shy about offering his opinions, often hotly worded, to his son and daughters. He stood his ground, but the love that was there came through. He “adopted” his second wife Pat’s grandchildren, welcoming them into the family and creating special bonds with them. In later years, his own grandchildren brought him much joy. He delighted in watching them grow, following their interests, and celebrating their successes. His flair for gift-giving continued to the end of his days, and nothing pleased him more than watching the face of a loved one receiving a thoughtful gift.

Tom left this world the same way he came in, with intensity and focus, with clear eyes and a fierce determination in his heart. His four children surrounded him, and although he couldn’t speak, he told us all how much he loved us with his eyes. He was a true Irish gentleman-honorable, thoughtful, and loving. We will miss him and mourn him but will always tell his many jokes, tales, and stories to keep his memory alive.

Did I ever tell you the funny story about : ?

A celebration of Tom’s life will be held on Saturday, March 17 from 1-4 p.m. at Mimosa Restaurant (2700 De la Vina St.). Please join us with your memories. Contributions in Tom’s memory may be made to Alpha Resource Center of Santa Barbara or to Visiting Nurse and Hospice Care Foundation


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