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Joan Murphy, Cook County commissioner, longtime politician dies at 79

Sunday, September 18, 2016
Chicago Tribune

Joan Murphy

Cook County Board Commissioner Joan Patricia Murphy during a board meeting on July 15, 2015.

(Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune)

Inspired by the public service of her childhood hero John F. Kennedy, Cook County CommissionerJoan Murphytraded life as a United Airlines stewardess for a career in local politics rising from Crestwood village clerk to the Cook County board, a hint of her South Boston accent intact.

Murphy, a political dynamo who had been noticeably absent from county board meetings for unspecified health reasons, died Sunday at her Crestwood home from complications ofbreast cancer, according to her daughter Tricia Murphy. She was 79.

Despite a grim prognosis from oncologists last spring who said she only had weeks to live, Murphy battled on, switching doctors and treatment regime, her daughter said. A longtime delegate to theDemocratic National Convention, Murphy lived to be a part of history, casting her superdelegate vote forHillary Clintonin July in Philadelphia from a wheelchair.

"It was one of her proudest moments," said Tricia Murphy, who snapped a photo of her mom on the convention floor holding a sign that said "History." "It was like she needed to do that before she could go. She was so excited and so happy. When the balloon drop happened she was buried in balloons — I just heard this little voice say, 'Yay!' "

Her long political career included many firsts — first woman elected to public office in Crestwood and the first woman elected Worth Township clerk and Worth Township supervisor. She was elected to the county board in 2002 after spending seven years in a patronage post appointed by John Stroger Jr. and chaired the board's labor committee.

"They're going to take me out of here in a casket," Murphy joked at times with her daughter, who closed her longtime Navy Pier shop to take care of her mother. "She worked seriously until the very end."

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said: "Joan's long career in public service is one that even those of us who have spent years in government can admire. She cared deeply about and was a champion for working people, and … was a thoughtful legislator, a class act respected by and considerate of her colleagues, ever kind to others and possessed a good sense of humor."

Elected Crestwood's village clerk in 1965, Murphy found the atmosphere rather different from her previous experience founding the Woman's Club at Incarnation Parish in Palos Heights, her daughter said. Firefighters welcomed her to the village by taping a picture of a Playboy centerfold to her office door with Murphy's picture pasted over the model's head.

She came home crying that night, but her husband Donald, a union electrician, advised her to stay tough, Tricia Murphy said. The 5-foot-1-inch Murphy did, she said.

"She added a little bubble that read, 'Naughty, naughty you've been peeking' and nobody ever said anything again," Tricia said.

A voluble presence who could light up the room, Murphy was a gifted singer who loved parties and taking her four children — three boys and one girl — on adventures, Tricia Murphy said. When the children begged their parents for a pony, they woke one morning to find a Shetland pony in a corral in their backyard.

The horse, which the family named Big Red, became a neighborhood attraction with families bringing their children over for a ride, Tricia Murphy said. It was skilled at escape — several times police officers who found the animal wandering would tie it to the side mirror of their squad car and slowly drive it home, she said.

A graduate of State Teacher's College in Boston, Murphy met her husband in Chicago and they married in 1959, spending four decades together before his death from leukemia, Tricia Murphy said. After a four-year term as Crestwood's clerk, she was elected Worth Township clerk in 1977, serving two terms there.

In 1989, Murphy was elected Worth Township supervisor, a position she held for the next eight years.

In addition to her husband, Murphy is predeceased by a son, Donald, Jr. She is survived by her daughter; sons Tim and Tony; and five grandchildren.

Services have not yet been arranged but are being handled by Lawn Funeral Home in Tinley Park.

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