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They say when you know, you know. And for Robert Murphy, he knew he wanted to spend his life with Lillian Wells the moment he laid eyes on her nearly 80 years ago.
Murphy, 93, was a teenager the first time Lillian walked into the Zoah Christian Church with her family. Her father was an itinerant minister, and she, her mother and two sisters nearly always traveled with him when he preached.
Murphy was horsing around with a couple of friends in one of the pews toward the back when he saw her.
“I nudged my buddy James and said, ‘I am going to marry that girl some day,’” he said. “I thought she was the most beautiful thing I ever saw.”
And marry her he did, Christmas Eve 1937. The couple are celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary today.
To hear Robert Murphy tell it though, it took a little convincing. Because Lillian lived more than 40 miles away in Orleans, the lovebirds didn’t get to see much of one another during the next couple of years. But in fall 1937, both families attended a county meeting at Fairview Church in Orleans.
“I conned dad out of the keys to the car, and we took off,” Robert Murphy said. “I asked her to marry me, and she wouldn’t answer right off. She agreed after I had begged her for about half an hour.”
Afraid of what their folks would say — Robert was just 18 and didn’t have a job — the pair made plans to elope.
On a snowy Christmas Eve, Robert and James Comer, the same James he sat next to in church years before, drove to Orleans and whisked Lillian away while her family was preoccupied with the holiday service.
They drove back to Scott County, where they paid a local preacher $5 to marry them in his living room. Then Murphy took his new bride back to her parents’ house.
The newlyweds didn’t see each other for another week, when Murphy returned to bring his wife back to his parents house. By then the cat was out of the bag, and the couple were greeted by about 200 revelers in what was called a shivaree. That’s when community members would gather around a newly married couple or at their home and cause a raucous, yelling and banging on pots and pans — a little bit of hazing before welcoming a couple who had eloped back into the
Robert Murphy’s mother, to whom he was so afraid to break the news, welcomed her new daughter-in-law with open arms.
“Mother took to her within a week,” he said.
By their first anniversary, the couple were living in a “half-bedroom apartment” in Madison where Robert Murphy spent Christmas Eve 1938 stocking grocery store shelves with oranges and bananas.
Shortly thereafter they moved to Edinburgh, where Robert Murphy worked as a farm manager for a local veterinarian. Their first son, Robert Samuel, was born during a blizzard Feb. 15, 1939.
In the ensuing years, the young family moved back to Scott County, where Murphy farmed and later became a general contractor. He served in the Navy briefly in 1944 before he was honorably discharged due to an injury.
In the 1960s, he earned a certification in engineering — quite a feat, given that he had no formal education past high school. Throughout his career, he worked extensively on bridges throughout southern Indiana, including Bartholomew County, and was instrumental in developing an epoxy that discouraged ice from forming on bridges.
They welcomed six more children in the coming years, all of whom had flawless Sunday school attendance records at the Zoah Christian Church, the same church where their parents met decades before.
While raising them certainly kept Lillian Murphy’s hands full, she still made time for volunteer work and was a founding member of the Ladies Auxiliary when Scott Memorial Hospital opened in 1959. She was also a longtime Sunday school teacher and up until a year or two ago sent birthday cards to her former students each year.
This past year, the Murphys moved into Scott Villa nursing home, where Lillian Murphy likes to work puzzles and zip up and down the halls, chatting with other residents who don’t see many visitors.
The couple see a near-constant stream of activity, as all seven children, 12 grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren and one great-great-
grandchild make regular visits.
And as the momentous anniversary drew near, which they will mark later this week with an open house, the Murphys don’t seem to see their accomplishment as anything all that remarkable, shrugging off the inevitable “How did you stay married?” questions with a simple and repeated “You just do!”
For Lillian Murphy, the preacher’s daughter, the answer is simple. “I never found a reason not to be married to him.”
That’s not to say there weren’t disagreements. The financial strain of raising seven children and caring for ailing parents, plus day-to-day squabbles most couples experience, sometimes caused arguments to bubble up.
“But it takes two to fight,” Robert Murphy said, adding that if a argument started to brew, he would leave and cool off. “When I got home, whatever it was didn’t matter anymore.”
Though their children say they don’t remember being given any specific marriage advice, steadfast loyalty was a lesson they learned by example.
“It was always in the background. It was just part of our upbringing,” said daughter Regina Pastrick of Columbus, who has been married to husband George for 47 years. “You are there to help your mate, for better or for worse.”
“It has been a very stabilizing influence for us,” said their eldest son, Robert Murphy of Franklin. “When you make a choice, you stand by your choice.”
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