Woman for All Seasons

Doris Murphy turns 100 with plenty of adventures ahead


One of the best things about living a long time is that you get to do a heck of lot.

Doris Murphy, who turns 100 this week, is a prime example. From her childhood as the rebellious daughter of a Portland architect and his socialite wife to her current status as the maven of Occidental, she has lived life with energy and audacity, and never looked back in regret.

“I didn’t think about it one way or another,” she says. “I just kept on living.”

Doris is best known as the founder of the Occidental Community Council, the creator of the Occidental Center for the Arts, and as part of a circle of writers who meet regularly under the guidance of author Chester Aaron.

But her adventures began many years ago, and they are not over yet. Robin Beeman, her friend and one of the editors of her autobiography, Love and Labor, attributes this to Doris’ zest.

“She’s an interesting person because she is interested in everyone else,” Beeman says. “She grew up in a generation, in the ’30s and ’40s, when they believed in having fun.”

She founded a shoestring literary magazine in 1934 with a handful of idealistic friends. But it was the height of the Depression, and it failed. Her next project was an artists’ colony on the Portland waterfront. She was pleased to find, in a visit 10 years ago, that the area is still devoted to the arts.

“It is now a modern building, but still filled with galleries,” she says.

Soon afterward, she returned to college, where she trained to become a social worker, a reliable profession in hard times. But Murphy makes abundantly clear that her greatest adventure was her 45-year romance with late labor leader Joe Murphy, whom she calls “the love of my life.”

A childhood member of the International Workers of the World, the Wobblies, Joe was an administrator for the American Federation of Labor when Doris met him in a North Beach bar in 1942.

It was mutual love at first sight. The only problem was that Joe was still married. There were a few years of agony and ecstasy for both of them, but true love found a way, and they were married in 1948. They had already purchased an isolated property on the top of a forested ridge in Occidental, where Doris still lives with her heeler mix, Matilda.

For 10 years, they were weekenders. Then Joe retired from the unions and they moved to the land in 1958. With her master’s degree in psychotherapy, she got a job at a clinic in Santa Rosa. Later, she worked for the county’s mental health department, retiring in her 90s from her own private practice. Joe, an amateur horticulturalist, opened a rhododendron nursery.

They lived blissfully in their “little village” until Joe died during a routine angioplasty in 1987. Doris was bereft, but she soon turned her enormous energies toward politics and writing. In her comfortable living room, flanked by an enormous fireplace built of stones Joe had hewn from their land, she hosted the regular collating of the Sonoma County Free Press.

Feeling that there was “nothing that holds Occidental together,” she “called about 10 people for a meeting,” and they founded the Occidental Community Council. The council netted $750 at its first crafts fair. With money in hand, it in began a food give-away program at the local Catholic Church.

Meanwhile, encouraged by her writing group, Doris completed her autobiography while writing a regular column for the Russian River Monthly. “She was working on a memoir,” Beeman recalls. “We all loved it and said she should publish it. But she was working on a lot of other things at the time, including the Occidental Center for the Arts. We said, ‘Anyone can do the center for the arts, but only you can do your memoir.'”

Which, of course, leads to the crowing achievement of Doris’ life —thus far—the Occidental Center for the Arts, slated for a grand opening on April 3 as part of the town’s annual Fool’s Day celebration.

Murphy and the late Kit Neustader of the Redwood Arts Council came up with the idea for a performing arts center about 20 years ago. The arts council had been holding its concerts in the local churches, and they thought it would be ideal to “find another place to have good local talent perform,” Murphy says.

They formed a committee and optioned to buy a piece of land across the road from the former Harmony School in downtown Occidental. But it was hard to raise money. Former West County supervisor Mike Reilly introduced Murphy to developer Orrin Thiessen, who owns the Harmony School property.

“Orrin called in about a week or two,” Doris remembers, “and said to come to his office. He offered us the auditorium. He deeded it to us.”

Her friends host a 100th birthday bash at the center for her on March 11.

“I said, ready or not, that’s where I want to have my party,” Doris exclaims.