Trustee Profile: Judge Diana Murphy

Her primary concern is working toward the common good

Diana Murphy has had many turning points in her life, but a seemingly innocuous one in a German town nearly a half century ago ranks among the most influential.

She was a University of Minnesota student majoring in Central European Area Studies, and had persuaded her father, a physician, to allow her to go to Germany on a Student Project for Amity among Nations (SPAN) trip even though he felt strongly that she should pursue a medical career.

During a train ride across Germany, she met a man who asked her what she doing.

"I explained SPAN and how I was studying student housing projects," she said. "That region had many famous medieval cities like Rothenburg and Dinkelsbühl, and he was surprised that anybody could come to the area and not spend time in those towns. He proposed a detour — that I should visit his home and that he would take me to Dinkelsbühl.

"So I went and met his wife and kids. They lived in part of an old castle. He asked me a lot of questions and took interest in my situation. He told me that I had to live my own life and not let my father persuade me to do something that I had little interest in. He said, ‘When you get home, tell him that night. If you don’t do it then, you never will.’

"When I got back, everybody was so happy to see me and wanted to hear about my trip. I got up my courage and told dad I wasn’t going to medical school. His happy look disappeared and he said, ‘I knew you’d change.’ He stalked off and went upstairs."

But her father ultimately accepted her choice, she said, and she would turn to him for advice at other times, including two decades later when she was deciding whether to go to law school. "He encouraged me," she said. "He was in my corner."

The anecdote is illustrative of an axiom in which Murphy believes — look to others for advice but also follow your own heart and trust your own judgment. It is an axiom that has guided her well in her careers as a homemaker, a community leader, a lawyer, a federal district judge and her position today as a judge on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Her interest in German history also resulted in her marriage to Joseph Murphy, a former broadcast industry and banking executive, "so it did turn out for the best that I didn’t go to medical school," she said. They met as graduate students and teaching assistants at the U — his specialty was English economic history — and they married in 1958.

It’s easy to understand why medicine was an expected career path for the Faribault native. Her mother was a nurse and her father worked for the Veterans Administration and Army Medical Corps. The family settled in St. Paul in the 1940s. She went to St. Luke’s Catholic School and Central High School before enrolling at Minnesota.

Murphy loved history, and after graduating in 1954 she received a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. She finished her course work for a Ph.D but not her thesis, and after getting married she stayed at home to raise their two sons.

She became involved in community and civic activities, she joked, after discovering "that being home all day and not talking to an adult was, well, you know, I needed other kinds of stimulation!" She found it in what she called "good government" organizations, serving as president of the Minneapolis League of Women Voters, chair of the Minneapolis Charter Commission and on the boards of the Urban Coalition and the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union.

"I started to think, ‘What do I want to do?’ I wanted more of a long-term goal, and I thought I had two options," she said. "First, law school because I liked lobbying and organizing for civil rights groups and working for the underdog. Second, writing — poetry, short stories, essays."

She enrolled at the University of Minnesota Law School in 1971 and graduated three years later with membership in the Order of the Coif, granted only to those who worked on the law review (she was its editor) and graduated in the top 10 percent of their class. She aspired to litigation work for a law firm but knew opportunities were few for women.

"It was a much more questioning environment for women, especially litigation," she said. "Would you be able to travel? What would you do when the kids were sick? Would jurors find you credible? It sounds hard to believe now, just 30 years later, but it was a very real issue."

• Elected to board of trustees in 1991, serves on the Executive Committee and is chair of the Physical Facilities Committee. She was a member and de facto chair of the 21-person advisory board that unanimously recommended St. Thomas reopen its law school.

• Believes the vision articulated by the Rev. Dennis Dease, president, for St. Thomas to be an urban university "is brilliant. It’s important that we succeed as an urban university both for the community and for higher education."

• Says St. Thomas’ ultimate challenge is to be faithful to its mission as a liberal arts college on the undergraduate level while maintaining the practical vitality of its graduate programs — and doing this, she adds, "so nothing spins out of control."

• Knows that "Ever Press Forward" is the name of the capital campaign but also feels it is a "wonderful description" of St. Thomas and its reluctance to stand pat. "We continue to see opportunities," she says, "and we continue to pursue them.