Raised family on hospital laundress’ salary

Written By BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter Posted: 07/19/2014, 03:54am
Array Myrline Murphy walking with a cousin. | Provided photo

If you were from Arkansas, you were alright with Myrline Murphy.

She loved fellow Arkansans Bill Clinton and Scottie Pippen.

When she mistakenly thought St. Louis rapper Nelly was from her home state, she blasted his 2002 hit at her home near 83rd and Constance.

“She was playing ‘Hot in Herre’ and I said, ‘What are you doing?’” said her son, Henry Murphy. “And she said, ‘He’s a good Arkansas boy.’ ’’ She was around 75 years old.

Mrs. Murphy raised two sons on her salary as a laundress at Michael Reese Hospital, a hot and sticky job in a room where it felt like 100 degrees — even in a Chicago winter.

She represented other staffers as a union steward, a responsibility that sometimes lengthened her workday from a 4:30 a.m. wake-up to a 10 p.m. return home.

Though she worked hard, she found time to go nightclubbing. When she dressed up in furs and jewelry, people said she looked like Gail Fisher, who won an Emmy for her role as secretary Peggy Fair on the 1967-1975 show, “Mannix.”

She had a special fondness for James Brown. According to family lore, Soul Brother Number One noticed her at one of his shows, but an unassailable biological fact affected her ability to reciprocate. “She was at a club and James Brown asked her out, and much as she loved the music, he was too short for her,” her son said.

Mrs. Murphy, 87, died July 9 at her Avalon Park home on the South Side.

She was born in Buckner, Ark., where the population hovers around 270.

Her parents were sharecroppers. “They worked really hard, and would have to give away half of the crops [to the landowner], and go to, sort of, the company store,” her son said. “The prices you have to pay were outrageous, and you’re always getting deeper and deeper in debt.”

As a youngster, when she walked a dirt road to the African-American school, “schoolbuses with white kids would go by, yelling slurs, and she wanted to get away from that,” her son said.

“When she left there, she had no desire to ever go back,” he said.

At 16, she headed north. In Chicago, she landed jobs as a cook and waitress in restaurants and nightclubs.

“I think she went there so she could party for free,” her son said.

“My mother loved to party, but she always took care of business,” he said. “She paid her house off.”

Her work ethic, independence and mastery of soul-food cooking assured her employment. “She could always find a job,” her son said.

During the 30 years she worked at Michael Reese, which operated at 29th and Ellis, she met patients, including comic Jackie Gleason, and movie star John Wayne, who visited actor Stepin Fetchit. Wayne complained about the hospital food, her son said.

The job was hard. “She would take me to work with her on Saturdays because she couldn’t afford a babysitter. They would open the windows. They would open the doors. I remember, that place, in the middle of winter, it was still like 100 degrees,” Henry Murphy said. “Really hard work. She had burns from being burned on dryers.”

Mrs. Murphy always found a room with air-conditioning where her son could wait.

She wanted Henry and her older son, Freddie Randle, to have a yard, so she moved the family from Englewood to Avalon Park, where she soon was named president of the block club. For the block party, she convinced merchants to donate food. After visiting the office of fellow Arkansan John Stroger, then the 8th Ward committeeman, she also landed loaner barbecue grills and an inflatable Moonwalk.

At Chicago nightclubs, she also met singers Bobby “Blue” Bland and Johnnie Taylor.

Even in their 60s, she and a friend made an event of James Brown shows. “They had matching outfits made, these yellow silk shirts. They screamed and yelled. Her friend ended up in the hospital for three weeks — she was asthmatic,” Henry Murphy said. “My mother lost her voice for a week.”

Mrs. Murphy enjoyed trips to California, Maine and Hot Springs, Ark. She liked evenings spent playing the card game pokeno with friends. “They would dress up. They would have cocktails and relish trays,” Henry Murphy said. “Nobody does that anymore.”

A wake is planned from 1-2 p.m. Saturday at Doty Nash Funeral Home, 8620 S. Stony Island. The funeral service is to begin at 2 p.m. Mrs. Murphy also is survived by eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Email: modonnell@suntimes.com

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