Leo Murphy: Viterbo's Pioneering Advisor

Murphy Center
Viterbo's first building, named for Leo Murphy in 1972, has been in business since January 1942. The university has plans to upgrade the building without sacrificing its nostalgic charm, with projects including phased window replacement, bathroom upgrades, lobby remodeling, and replacement of the famously slow elevator.

Namesake of 'Main Hall' Left His Mark on University

It’s telling that only a month after W. Leo Murphy died in 1972, Viterbo University announced that the cornerstone of its campus would bear Murphy’s name.

W. Leo Murphy
W. Leo Murphy chaired the first meeting of the Viterbo board of advisors in 1953, and he was one of the first two lay people named to the school's board of trustees.

At the time of his death, Murphy was chairman of the board of Gateway Transportation Company, one of the largest trucking companies in the country. He also was one of La Crosse’s leading citizens, getting involved in countless civic organizations and causes. Viterbo, though, was one of the causes most special to Murphy.

When the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration sisters recognized the need for a stronger connection between the college they started and the community, they formed a board of advisors. At the first meeting of this board on May 19, 1953, Murphy served as chair.

In 1966, when the Viterbo board of trustees was opened to lay representation for the first time, Murphy was one of two men chosen for the board. Two years later, Murphy co-chaired the fundraising effort to build the Viterbo Fine Arts Center, a project dedicated in March 1971.

On May 18, 1972, three days after undergoing open-heart surgery at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., a blood clot developed and traveled to his brain, ending Murphy’s life at the age of 68.

Scarcely a month later, on June 22, the La Crosse Tribune reported that Viterbo was “recognizing an ‘outstanding and unforgettable person’” in renaming the college’s first building for Murphy.

“Leo Murphy was known and recognized as a Christian gentleman, an outstanding citizen concerned for people and his community, and a leader in independent higher education,” a school official said in announcing the honoring of Murphy.

Howard Dahl, Sister Justille, and Leo Murphy
Sister Justille is pictured with Howard Dahl, left, and Leo Murphy, who were among the first members of the Viterbo board of advisors in 1953. They were the first laymen on the board of trustees. Both Dahl and Murphy now have campus buildings named for them.

“The main administration building has been chosen to bear his name because of his intimate involvement with the leadership of the college and his personal support of the academic activities which take place there,” the Tribune said.

The second eldest of the four boys, Leo was the first to join the company started in 1896 by his father, Michael. “It is said that Leo has his father’s coordination and extraordinary memory for details and the capacity to follow through on everything,” according to a 1965 article. “An employee says of him, ‘You’ll never find a loose door knob in his home.’”

Few people remain who knew Murphy as long as George Phillipps knew him, and the 91-year-old La Crosse resident thought the world of Murphy.

“He was the best man I ever knew, the man I admired most,” said Phillipps, who began working for Gateway on Oct. 1, 1947, when he was just 19 years old.

At that time, Murphy was president of Gateway, the big boss of a company in which three of his brothers also were involved. As the new guy in the trailer shop, Phillipps got the task of going to Murphy’s house at 15th and Cass Streets and installing 50-plus storm windows, all of which first had to be washed.

George Phillipps
George Phillipps

“I got to know Leo quite quickly, and he really stood out,” Phillipps said. “For one thing, he was always a snappy dresser, and he always walked with a certain gait, full of confidence and energy.”

Phillipps figures it was Murphy’s way of running Gateway that led to the company’s huge growth and mammoth success.

“He was the guy who knew what was going on. You didn’t pull the wool over his eyes ,” Phillipps said. "He was a heckuva great guy, but he was firm.”

Murphy was strongly devoted to his Catholic faith, so much so that he got a chance to meet with the pope in the 1960s, Phillipps said.

Despite being the kind of guy who could get the pope’s attention, Phillipps remembers Murphy as being down to earth and approachable. “He was such a nice guy when you knew him.”