At every home game the Catholic University basketball team has played in the past 62 years, Francis E. “Franny” Murray has been cheering the Cardinals on from the sidelines. But Saturday was not a typical home game for the 86-year-old employee. This time, the long time equipment manager was on the receiving end of the cheers as the University named the basketball court in the DuFour Center in his honor.
Over 300 people spanning seven decades attended a dinner that night in the university’s Pryzbyla Center, where Murray was awarded the President’s Medal, the university’s highest honor, for his service to the school.
Many spoke of Murray’s uncanny ability to remember not only names but also details about each and every player he has come into contact with.
So as a parade of former student athletes, staff members and assorted friends and family greeted the campus legend, there was no need for reintroductions. He knew each one by name. Between the dedication of the court and the dinner in his honor, he was back in the equipment room (“The Cage”) reminiscing with old and new friends.
Soon, point guard Sean Stolzenthaler stopped by, fresh off a Cardinal victory on the newly renamed court.
“Franny!” said Stolzenthaler.
“Hi-ya, Sean. Good win,” said Murray.
“All for you, sir,” said Stolzenthaler.
“Some of my friends asked how long Franny had been at Catholic, and I could only say that I don’t know for sure, but I think since dirt was made,” said Sharon Repass, the first woman ever inducted into CUA’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1988.
So what has changed about the University since he started as equipment manager some 62 years ago?
“Not much,” said Murray. “The kids are still the same, and that’s what’s good about the place I think.”
“He feels like one of the guys,” said Mike Bzozowski, a sophomore baseball player. “He’s the big man on campus down here at the Duf.”
It’s hard to grasp the sheer volume of Murray’s legacy — baseball coach Ross Natoli calculated that Murray worked 18,720 consecutive days at the University. He has seen the University under eight separate presidents (or rectors, before the title was changed in the late 1960s). The Washington Post did a profile piece highlighting his long career in 1988 when he had been at the University for 40 years. Murray has not missed a single home basketball or football game since 1947 even after triple bypass surgery in 1982.
But do not try to get Murray to talk about himself. He kept his remarks at the dinner under 30 seconds and said that he was the world’s worst speaker and if not, the second. He thanked everyone for taking time out of their lives to come and say hello.
Even those organizing the dinner met some initial resistance from Murray.
“Being a very humble man, Franny wasn’t too keen on the idea at first, but he finally gave in,” said Katie Acuff, development director.
“After the invitations came out for the dinner, Franny called me up and he said ‘Hey Bob, did you see the price of this ticket for dinner?’ and I said ‘Franny, $130, anyone would come for you! $130 is no problem’,” said Robert J. Talbot, who has known Murray for 54 years. “Franny said, ‘I wouldn’t pay $130 for a seat at the last supper’.”
“I wouldn’t either,” University President Rev. David M. O’Connell quipped from the audience.
“I think I speak for everyone here when I say that this isn’t about an event for us. It’s not about a plaque, or a reception or a dinner. It’s about having a chance to simply say thank you, Franny. Thank you for the memories. Thank you for your warm embrace you so willingly shared. Thank you for the gentle guidance all these years. Thank you for just being you,” said Acuff.
“He’s the most humble man in the world,” said Ann Brogioli, class of 1989. She and some fellow basketball teammates seemed determined make that as difficult as possible, designing t-shirts embroidered with his photo and the caption “The Man, The Myth, The Legend.” Even O’Connell sported one under his clerical clothing.
During World War II, Murray served in New Guinea and the Philippines as a B-25 gunner in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He had enlisted at age 19 and trained as an airplane mechanic, and enrolled at CUA under the G.I. Bill after an honorable discharge. He graduated in 1950 with a degree in English and boxed on the varsity team for four years.
“Boxing was big at Catholic University in those days, as it was on the east coast,” said Talbot.
Murray says he spend the majority of his time in the ring on his back looking up at the lights and joked that he got knocked down so often that advertisers used to rent out space on the soles of his shoes.
The sport was discontinued in the mid-1950s, as it was at many schools, and the University put more emphasis on basketball.
During his second year at Catholic, he started working in the athletic department in the old gym, now the architecture building, which was originally conceived as a temporary armory for World War I.
“I got married in June of ‘47, so I had to get a job, and I started working in the athletic department,” said Murray. His wife of 58 years, Eileen, died four years ago. He has eight children and seven grandchildren.
Murray’s “Cage” was on the first floor to the right in the old gym. When the department moved into the DuFour Center in 1985, Murray told the Post that they were “going to move this room just as it is.” The Post described the room as the kind of thing you’d find reconstructed at the Museum of American History as an example of American sporting life, circa 1940.
“The cage was like a mall, complete with a laundromat, a CVS, Footlocker, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Beer & Wine and Off-Track Betting,” said Repass. “Franny provided student athletes with more than a clean uniform. He provided friendship, support and encouragement. He even provided us with iced-down adult beverages concealed conveniently behind a locker after a hard fought game.”
He has not always been “Keeper of the Cage.” His career has included stints as a referee, as head of the intramural and sports information operations, a year as acting director, 29 years as athletic trainer and many more in his current role of equipment manager.
“His dedication to our university is pretty remarkable,” said athletic director Mike Allen.
But it is not just the length of Murray’s career that is so impressive. It is the way he treats everyone he works with, speakers said at the tribute dinner.
“He makes you feel special and he knows your name, and he knows your friend’s name, and your parents’ names, who you dated, what town you came from, what team you were on, your teammates, your stats, the year you graduated, who you married, and many of our children,” said Repass.
“It was so nice and so comforting to go down to Franny’s office just in between classes to go in and B.S. a little bit,” said Talbot. “It was also a great place to go to complain and whine.” He described complaining to Murray about his teachers and coaches as Frank Sinatra music played in the background and Murray signaled he was listening by offering up the occasional “yeah.” Pretty soon, “Franny says, ‘Heck, you know people in hell want a glass of water’,” said Talbot. “After all these years, you still can’t figure out if he ever agreed with you.”
Talbot also recalled Murray’s well known ability to tape an ankle. Murray had a special tape “that was like cement” and he would spray it all over. “The taping job was fabulous – you never knew how bad you were hurt because you never felt that ankle for the rest of the season,” said Talbot.
“He was very kind and always open, I think he provided a lot of counseling for students,” said Karl Bailey, who ran sports medicine at CUA for almost 20 years—from 1982-2002.
Martin Dowd (brother of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd) has spent nearly 50 years as an athlete and a coach at CUA, and is one of the most successful coaches in CUA history. This spring marks his 50th season as a part of the men’s tennis team—four years as a player and 46 as a coach.
“He’s the only person left at Catholic who still calls me junior, and that’s why I love him,” said Dowd. He suggested that perhaps the court wasn’t big enough and joked of renaming McMahon Hall for Murray. “Ask any student on campus who McMahon Hall is named after [they’ll say] Ed McMahon. If you name it Franny Hall, they’ll sure as heck all know who it was named after.”
Dowd recalled when he first met Franny as a freshman in 1956 after he made the tennis team. “My captain told me to pick up my equipment at the gym. Go up the steps, through the doors, stay to the right, head down the hall to the cage, there’s an old guy there named Franny Murray,” Dowd said. “Franny was 32!”
Hicabi “Turk” Emekli was a player and a coach, and started the soccer program. “He was great, we all loved working with Franny,” Emekli said.
Dowd’s wife Jane is the former senior associate director of athletics who founded women’s athletics at CUA in the late 60s, said that she would not have been hired without Murray’s approval. When she was interviewing at the age of 23, the director of athletics at the time took her down to the cage, introduced her to Murray and asked him what he thought. Murray glanced up, sized her up, and gave his seal of approval – “She’s okay,” he said. Once she got the thumbs up from Franny, Dowd went on to work in athletics for 47 years. Her husband is still coaching men’s tennis team, and her daughter is coaching the women’s squad.
“There is not one other person in CUA history who could attract a crowd of this many people,” said Dowd. “He’s got a special gift.”
Murray also has a great memory. When former lacrosse team captain Christine Thornton graduated in 2005, she realized she had forgotten a number of items in her locker and returned to the DuFour Center. She did not know the combination to her locker, but somehow Murray knew if off hand.
Murray reportedly got a little tired at the end of the long day and was taken to the hospital for a checkup, but he was back in “The Cage” this week.
He doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon. “I don’t really have any hobbies, so why should I quit?”
Some of the younger alums stopped to say goodbye to Murray before they left the dinner on Saturday, ready to head out to a bar downtown. “Stay out of trouble,” he told them.