LESSONS IN LEADERSHIP: The Legacy of Headmaster Mike Murphy

by: Paul Abercrombie
View the video The Legacy of Headmaster Mike Murphy (below).

Shorecrest wouldn’t look the same if not for soon-to-retire Headmaster Mike Murphy. Most of the campus as it exists today was built during his 15 years of leadership. That includes the Middle School Arts and Sciences and Upper School Landy Hall, as well as the Athletic Center and the new Charger Commons, a project of the Transform Campaign.

Also, he championed the creation of the school’s novel outdoor greenspaces, reminiscent of its founding as the Shorecrest Outdoor School, where classes were conducted outside, under palm trees.

Proud as Murphy is of the role he has played at Shorecrest—which he emphatically calls “supporting only” thanks to the leaders who came before him—he’s more gratified to have helped remake the school’s approach to education.

Out went reading and writing programs based on textbooks little changed since the 19th century; in came encouraging students to immerse themselves in original works of literature, and to discuss and write about them.

Gone, too, were old-fashioned rows of desks and lecture-style classes, replaced by workshops, often led by students.

Rote memorization of facts and figures made way for fresher approaches, most notably the chance for students to follow academic passions. High schoolers no longer have to wait until college to pursue interests over semesters, or even years. Distance learning technologies and other innovations are now embraced in all grades.

The goal of each change has been the same: to inspire a love of learning.

“I don’t want to hear that recess is your favorite subject,” Murphy says. “I want everything to be your favorite subject.”

Judging by the growing number of Shorecrest graduates accepted by top universities and awarded national scholarships, Murphy’s approach appears to be a genuine success.

Conversations with students, colleagues and parents reveal a man whose contributions are far more important than merely helping to build snazzy facilities and resumes.

Julie Klavans, a mother of four daughters who would eventually graduate from Shorecrest, was among the parents asked in 2004 to help hire a new headmaster. Impressed as she was by Murphy’s reputation as headmaster of Atlanta’s Pace Academy, it wasn’t until she met him that she knew he was the right person to lead Shorecrest. Klavans was moved by his warmth and curiosity, especially about the school as a community.

“You can have all the right things on paper,” she says, “but you also have to be the right fit for a school. Mike was the right person.”

She’s more convinced of this now, as her daughters, now in their 20s and 30s, pursue careers and lives of their own.

“As I look back, I realize just how important it was that (Mike) helped make the school what it is,” Klavans says. “(My daughters) learned how to think, how to reason, how to make good decisions… Shorecrest gave them a foundation that helped them in college and will help them throughout their lives.”

Fellow Shorecrest community members share similar feelings for Murphy.

Elizabeth Samuelson, whose daughter is a senior and son graduated from Shorecrest in 2019, believes Murphy’s passion for learning and teaching others is his most important legacy.

“He’s always trying to better everyone,” she says. “It inspires those around him to do more, be more.”

Murphy’s focus has always been on helping kids, she says, recalling a time when she and her husband had, during a school fundraiser, won an auction for which the prize was Murphy coming to their home to read bedtime stories to their then preschool-age kids.

“After reading bedtime stories, he said, ‘I can tell your kids are going to be great readers because of how they listened and really interacted when I read to them,’” Samuelson says. “He was serious. His priority was always the kids.” 

Of course, she jokes, being tireless probably helped him excel as headmaster. “He’s always the first one at school in the morning and the last to leave at night,” she says. “I really don’t know how he does it.” (This from a woman whose breadth and depth of service to the school inspired trustees to name an annual community spirit award after her.)

Even injuries didn’t seem to slow him down. Knee surgery several years ago didn’t stop Murphy from leading his annual weeklong senior boys backpacking trip in the Smoky Mountains.

“He wouldn’t let that keep him from sharing his love of nature,” Samuelson says. “My son was so happy and amazed by that experience.”

Former colleagues also thank Murphy for helping them with their careers beyond Shorecrest.

Stephen Manella, assistant headmaster at Shorecrest before becoming headmaster of Sayre School in Lexington, KY, says Murphy helped him think more strategically.

“(Murphy) was a tremendous mentor,”Manella says.“He is always thinking not just about where we are, but where we want to go and who we want to be as a community.”

Manella also marvels at Murphy’s dedication and stamina.

“He always made time, no matter how busy, to pop into classrooms, to be at events and work long hours for the betterment of everyone else,” Manella says. “(Being headmaster) is an exhausting job, but, boy, he never seemed to be tired.” 

For students like Steven Tellios, Murphy was as much inspiration as salvation.

Now 25, Tellios recalls first meeting Murphy when he was in fourth grade. He’d gotten into “a little bit of disciplinary trouble,” and was sent to talk with Murphy, who chose to sit with the boy on the grass outside instead of in his office.

“He spoke to me as a peer,” Tellios says. “I was amazed. He treated me as an equal.” Never an excellent student, Tellios especially struggled with his studies during his junior and senior years. Then-undiagnosed ADD made concentrating difficult.

Concerned, Murphy “took me under his wing, and for almost a year and a half, we would meet an hour before school every day and simply talk,” Tellios says. “We would talk about everything, plans for the future, what was going on in my life. I look back and think of how, even though he was incredibly busy, he took that time with me every day.”

Tellios recently earned a master’s degree in bioinformatics, the science of collecting and analyzing complex biological data such as genetic codes. He plans next to go to law school and become a patent lawyer.

“(Murphy) changed the trajectory of my whole life,” Tellios says.

Murphy acknowledges his own childhood struggles with school have played a big part in shaping who he is. Unable to attend kindergarten, and suffering from a then-undiscovered auditory processing problem, Murphy floundered in school.

“School was not my friend,” he says. “Elementary school was terrible, and high school was a close second.”

A diehard sports fan but middling athlete, Murphy dreamed of becoming a coach. Summers spent working as a counselor at a boys’ sports camp run by former Cleveland Browns linebacker Vince Costello further fueled his interest. But it wasn’t until his junior year in college that he began to enjoy his studies, especially reading, and he began to imagine a way to combine his passions.

“I never lost my interest in being a coach,” Murphy says. “I just wanted to become a different kind of coach.”

Though fans have questioned why he’d want to retire at the relatively young age of 69, Murphy says he always planned to do so after 15 years at Shorecrest. Besides, he jokes, with the average tenure of private school headmasters at around six years, he’s not exactly leaving early. What’s more, he says it’s important for the school to look to fresh ways of thinking and doing, which incoming Head of School Nancy Spencer brings. He anticipates she’ll find ways of making the school more progressive, including encouraging students to balance scholastic competitiveness and mental health, and inspire greater school involvement among parents, grandparents and alumni.

Murphy isn’t without regrets. He wishes he had pushed to hire a director of diversity and inclusion far sooner than several years ago. He’s also disappointed that he wasn’t able to make outdoor-related education, especially environmental studies, more widespread and prominent.

Meanwhile, Murphy says he’s not retiring in any traditional sense. He plans to continue working with kids and educators, most likely as a mentor. And he’ll have more time to devote to writing, with the help of Shorecrest parent and illustrator Jon Hoefer, a series of young children’s books.

He’s even toying with finally getting around to hiking more of the Appalachian Trail, maybe from Maine straight through to Georgia. Of course, even this might be an opportunity to share his love of the outdoors with others.

“I could invite people to join me on parts of it,” he says. In true Mike Murphy fashion he remains a teacher and a leader, even in retirement.


Originally published in the March 2020 edition of “Shorecrest Magazine.”

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Shorecrest Preparatory School is a private, non-sectarian, coeducational, college preparatory day school for students preschool through high school, located in St. Petersburg, Florida.