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Our Rich History: Thomas More in early 1970’s, from Msgr. John Murphy to Dr. Richard DeGraff

By Dr. Raymond Hebert
Special to NKyTribune

Part 3 of our series, “Retrospect and Vista II”: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021

Msgr. John Murphy was the dean/president of Villa Madonna/Thomas More College from 1951 to 1971. His title went from being “dean” to being “president,” at the same time as the bishop of the Diocese of Covington went from being “president” to “chancellor” of the college. The latter two titles have been at the upper echelons of the administration ever since.

The title of “Dean of the College” was held by the chief academic officer, and later included the suffix of “and Vice President for Academic Affairs.”

Msgr. Murphy had been appointed to the position of dean at the age of 28 by Bishop William T. Mulloy, who died in 1959. In 1960 Richard H. Ackerman C.S.Sp., S.T.D., Auxiliary Bishop of San Diego, was named new bishop of the Diocese of Covington. Ackerman was a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and a member of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost. He had served as the national director of the Pontifical Association of the Holy Childhood, and as a professor at Duquesne University before being named auxiliary bishop of San Diego.

Msgr. John Murphy

In his published Personal Reflections, Msgr. Murphy said of Bishop Ackerman, that he “made an immediate good impression on all. He appeared to be a simple priest, prepared to listen to everyone, relaxed on liturgical ceremonies and open and courteous to all he met and/or worked with.” After noting that he differed from his predecessor “as day from night,” Msgr. Murphy praised the bishop for “authorizing a capital funds campaign (the first ever in the college’s history) and the related movements towards architect selection and construction for the new campus in Crestview Hills.” He added that, for the entire first part of Bishop Ackerman’s time in office, he was “a friend and ally” of the college, who “attended board meetings and handled his role as bishop and chancellor with discretion and kindness” (Msgr. Murphy, Personal Reflections, pp. 70-72).

Of the end of the 1960’s and the move from being Villa Madonna College in Covington to becoming Thomas More College in suburban Crestview Hills, Msgr. Murphy reflected that: “this idyllic period might have gone on indefinitely had not the II Vatican Council intervened. This [event] had changed Bishop Ackerman completely. He fought it all the way” (Personal Reflections, p. 72).

As noted in our previous article (here), Sister Irmina Saelinger’s Retrospect and Vista, I explained the transformational changes from Villa Madonna College in Covington to becoming Thomas More College in Crestview Hills. This included the exciting dedication events on the new campus from September 22-29, 1968 which even brought then-President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson, to campus for the keynote event on Saturday, September 28, 1968.

While Msgr. Murphy was proud of all the changes on the new campus, including the Science Building Project that had begun, he nevertheless was becoming concerned about disagreements that were developing with the bishop. On the one hand, as alluded to above, in President Murphy’s view, “Bishop Ackerman was frightened of change and felt that bad things were happening in the Church.” He was not alone as a number of the other diocesan priests felt the same, according to Msgr. Gerald Twaddell, a diocesan priest at St. Pius Seminary at the time and now Professor of Philosophy at Thomas More and Rector of the Mary Seat of Wisdom Chapel on campus (Murphy, Personal Reflections, pp. 72 and Conversations with Msgr. Gerald Twaddell).

Msgr. Twaddell has noted that there were several diocesan clergy in the Theology Department at Thomas More who not only agreed with Msgr. Murphy’s views, but went beyond them with more radical approaches about the need for reform emerging from what became known as Vatican II. The result was a rift that developed within Covington’s diocesan clergy, even resulting in a withdrawal of support for the college among many priests of the diocese. In his Personal Reflections, Msgr. Murphy alludes to these differences, implying that they resulted in a tension that often placed him between the two sides. Without elaborating on specifics, Murphy merely stated that his “relations with Bishop Ackerman continued to go downhill.”

Later, in 1970, he added that he “was personally running out of gas” and he felt that “it was time for me to leave” (Murphy, Personal Reflections, pp. 72-77).

The result, as Thomas More College approached 1971 and the first year of our second fifty years, was that in May, 1970, President Murphy notified the bishop of his resignation, which would take effect on June 1, 1971. VMC/TMC’s second fifty years would, therefore, officially begin with a search and a decision to hire the first lay president of Thomas More College, Dr. Richard De Graff. Before moving into the De Graff years, it seems relevant to begin with Murphy’s personal assessment of Dr. De Graff. In his words:

Under the leadership of my successor, Richard De Graff, a new partnership was formed with Bishop Ackerman and they appeared to move away from the center that I had zealously guarded. Others will have to write of the De Graff years. My own observation is that they continued as long as they did (seven years) because of the conservative lock up with the bishop and others among the trustees. They were all good people, but their concern led them to adopt conservative defenses which in my opinion were incorrect choices (Murphy, Personal Reflections, pp. 76-77).

As will be noted in a later article, Dr. De Graff’s presidency would run into difficult times and the differing views of Vatican II’s impact on a Catholic college could be said to have played a role in his departure. His struggles with faculty over such differences were to punctuate each year of his presidency.

Richard Degraff and Msgr. Murphy

Before we leave Msgr. Murphy altogether, however, it is imperative he also be given credit for having “obtained authorization to begin construction of the science wing in order to bring all departments to the new campus.” Murphy states that “I felt a deep sense of gratitude that I had been part of the college (VMC/TMC) that had pulled itself up by its own bootstraps.” To be sure, much was owed to Msgr. John F. Murphy who was the president of VMC/TMC for 20 years. The successful second 50 years, beginning in 1971 with the presidency of Dr. Richard De Graff, its first lay President and the dedication of the Science Wing, would not have been as successful without the contributions of Msgr. John F. Murphy.

Msgr. John F. Murphy left Thomas More College in 1971 and accepted a new position as Vice President for University Relations at Catholic University of America, Washington D.C. In 1980, he returned to Northern Kentucky to become the first director of the Diocese of Covington Planning Office. In 1982 he was also named the pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Ft. Wright. He retired in 1992. Msgr. Murphy died in a tragic automobile accident on the AA Highway near Foster, KY on August 1, 2001 (Kenton County Public Library-Obituary).

Dr. Raymond G. Hebert is a Professor of History and Executive Director of the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Liberty at Thomas More University. He has just completed his 46th year at Thomas More and, with that background, will now serve as the General Editor of the official history of Thomas More College/University from 1971-2021. With a projected title of RETROSPECT AND VISTA II, it will serve as the sequel to Sr. Irmina Saelinger’s RETROSPECT AND VISTA, the history of the first 50 years of Thomas More College (formerly Villa Madonna College). Ray can be contacted at hebertr@thomasmore.edu.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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