Cover Photo by Cheryl Gorski
You don’t always set out to have a career that puts you in the public eye. Sometimes, like life, it’s just something that happens to you while you’re making other plans. Sheila Murphy didn’t plan to become one of Western New York’s first female radio reporters. Or the market’s first permanent woman TV news anchor. Or an At-Large member of Buffalo’s Common Council. And certainly not Assistant New York Secretary of State. But she did.
If it sounds like we’ve pretty much given away most of the rest of this story in the first paragraph, don’t worry. Fate may have taken her to some quite remarkable places over the past six decades. But as we all know, life isn’t about where you end up. The important part is what you do along the way.
So what do you pack for a journey like the one Sheila Murphy has been on since first setting out to find her destiny? Her innate ability to express herself wasn’t a bad place to start, although her mother probably wouldn’t have been quite so optimistic. In fact, if anything, she was almost as surprised as Murphy herself was about the kind of unexpected opportunities life presented.
Murphy’s assessment of herself comes with the kind of candor you’d expect from a straight-talking newsperson. “I talked… constantly,” she says. “So there were always notes going home. ‘Dear Mrs. Murphy: Sheila’s a lovely girl, but… she will have definite problems in life if she doesn’t learn to curb her tongue.’ ” It will, they suggested, be “her downfall.” Or, apparently, her career.
Of course, back in the 1960s, she recalls, young women — even very verbally gifted ones — had a limited range of career options. The choices laid out for her consisted in large part of nurse, teacher and nun — not an unlikely selection for Irish Catholic girl who graduated from St. Andrews Elementary and Mount St. Mary’s High School, both in her native Kenmore.
But even after working for three years as an aide at Kenmore Mercy Hospital and later earning a New York State Regents’ scholarship in Nursing, Murphy decided to pursue a career in teaching and attend Buffalo State — or State Teachers’ College as it was still known back then. It was just one of many plans for her life that would undergo major revision.
Her years at State were, she admits, fun but unfocused. After taking an abundance of classes in subjects like English Lit and Theatre, she had reached her Junior year but was nowhere within reach of a teaching degree. She did, however, manage to catch hold of her first moment in the spotlight, earning a non-speaking role as a dancer in one of the many Casting Hall productions in which she would ultimately perform.
Upon coming to the realization that teaching wasn’t going to be the answer to the big “What am I going to do with my life?” question, Murphy, at 21, opted to go to Plan B … or C or D, depending how you were counting them. Leaving school to live, work and, as was big back then, find herself, she started by finding a job, appropriately enough for someone anxious to get her foot in the door somewhere, at a podiatrist’s office.
But as much as she enjoyed the work and the independence that came with a paycheck, it still wasn’t a career. So after a few years, during which time she worked days and attended the University of Buffalo nights, she reached her first big destination: a 1973 Bachelor of Arts degree in Speech Communication.
The only thing that doesn’t come with a college education, of course, is a set of specific instructions on how or where to use it. And while sometimes you figure that out for yourself, sometimes it comes down to being in the right place at the right time. In Murphy’s case, the right place turned out to be out socializing with friends, who introduced her to a fellow named Dave Marsett.
Back then, Marsett, now with WBBM Radio in Chicago, was News Director at the fondly remembered AM/FM radio station combo WYSL and WPhD. Impressed with Murphy’s verbal skills and her interest in getting into the media, he invited her to audition for a spot on the stations’ news staff. In 1972, when female reporters — particularly doing “hard” news — were barely a blip on the Western New York media radar, this seemed an unlikely opportunity. But Marsett persisted, finally persuading Murphy to come down to their downtown studios at Franklin and Edward and cut a “demo” tape.
“I had never been in front of a mic in my life,” admits Murphy. But she must have risen to the occasion, because her performance for that audition brought a job offer that ultimately opened the door to a remarkable career filled with unforgettable experiences. At the top of her list, she says, were the “very cool people” she had the pleasure and privilege of working with. “Kevin O’Connell was there. Jim Santella was there,” as was future Channel 4 anchorman Allen Costantini, who a few years later she would be working with again just up the street at 1970s radio news powerhouse WGR-AM.
Murphy’s parents, she says, accepted these unexpected career developments with pleased if somewhat quizzical support. After breaking into the business at WYSL, she went by to tell them her big news. She remembers vividly how her folks “would always sort of roll their eyes whenever I would come home with some fantastic story of what I was going to be doing now. They just learned to shrug and think ‘There she goes again.’”
But when she told her parents, who were big fans of WBEN’s legendary Clint Buehlman, that she was going to be on the radio, her mother was genuinely perplexed, asking, quite sincerely, “‘Why would anybody pay you to talk?’ Remember,” adds Murphy, “this was the woman who got those ‘Dear Mrs. Murphy’ notes.”
Making that short-but-significant 1972 trip across Franklin Street from WYSL to WGR would ultimately be just the first leg of her journey from the fast-paced world of radio to the high-profile showcase of television. During her GR55 years, she further sharpened her reporting skills, covering compelling hard news stories like the historic prison uprising at Attica. In the process, she established a mutually appreciative relationship with the news operation at WGR-TV Channel 2 which, like WGR Radio, was owned by Taft Broadcasting Corp., and occasionally contributed to the station’s newscasts.
The turning point that led her to another of the major destinations of her already-accomplished career came when friend and fellow trailblazer Susan King announced that she was leaving Channel 2 for Washington, DC’s Channel 9, WTOP, now WUSA. King — who herself had set major precedents in local broadcasting filling in as anchor for both weekend and weekday newscasts at 2 — encouraged Murphy to make her interest in the soon-to-be-open position known.
On the strength of her proven reporting skills, her native’s knowledge of the community and that community’s familiarity with her and her work, Channel 2 didn’t have to think about it for very long. The job was a natural fit, and soon Murphy was a regular fixture on local viewers’ TV screens, first doing the local news “cut ins” during NBC’s Today show at 5:25 and 6:25 a.m., and later co-anchoring the 6:00 and 11:00 p.m. newscasts with her still good friend Rich Kellman, whom she recently helped induct into the Buffalo Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
Murphy takes understandable pride and pleasure in having been in the forefront of a change that is widely recognized as an important step forward for both the broadcast news business and the community. It’s an appreciation shared by the women who have followed Murphy into prominent roles in Western New York’s now more diverse family of media professionals. And for all the healthy competition among the market’s major media players, it’s really a very closely-knit group living in a very small world.
Susan Banks, who shared the compelling story of how she faced and prevailed over breast cancer in After 50’s October 2004 issue, has a similarly strong connection to Western New York’s viewing public. Having come and gone from local television twice, anchoring the news for two of Buffalo’s original big three stations, she appreciates how much Murphy’s early contributions paved the way for the healthy diversity of today’s Western New York media market.
Banks came to Buffalo the first time in the early 1970s from Washington, North Carolina’s WITN Channel 7, where she herself had blazed a trail or two. Demonstrating yet again how small a world it really is, she had taken over solo anchoring duties for the station’s 11:00 p.m. newscast from John Beard, who would later enjoy a very successful run co-anchoring with Carol Jasen at Buffalo’s Channel 4.
“They took a pretty big chance putting me on the 11 o’clock news,” she recalls, “because Northeast Carolina had never had a female anchor before.” A good indication that the gamble paid off was the fact that — after her station began giving cable-carried competitor WRDU in nearby Raleigh-Durham a run for its money in the ratings — a tape highlighting her on-air excellence made its way to a couple of other stations also owned by RDU’s parent company Capital Cities Broadcasting, including one in Buffalo, New York.
Banks ended up taking that job here with WKBW-TV’s Eyewitness News, following the Buffalo-bound path of Beard, who has since gone on to become something of a local news institution in San Diego, California. Drawn away from us for a one-year stint at the CBS affiliate in Boston, she returned once again to Buffalo, spending six years co-anchoring at Murphy’s old stomping grounds Channel 2 News. After one final attempt to lure her away — this time to KHOU-TV in Houston — Banks came back to her original Buffalo home at Channel 7, where she is now one of the most immediately recognizable faces in local television news.
WIVB’s Jacquie Walker also remembers the faces of the women she admired most when she was starting out in the news business. Throughout a career that began in 1979 at WBHW Channel 55 in Springfield, Illinois, Walker appreciates she has benefited from the efforts of trailblazers like Lesley Stahl, Diane Sawyer and Jane Pauley nationally and Sheila Murphy locally.
Walker came to Buffalo’s Channel 4 in 1983 from a four-year run at Rochester’s WROC-TV Channel 8, where she anchored first the Noon and then the 6:00 and 11:00 p.m. newscasts. It was a far cry from her early days in Springfield, where she “did it all.” Shot video. Wrote copy. Edited. Produced. Even printed the script out on long sheets of paper and taped it up on the moving conveyor belt-style teleprompter, “praying it wouldn’t fall off during the newscast.”
By the time she reached Buffalo, she recalls, the business had definitely changed, having substantially put behind it its primarily male-dominated past. “Once I was in the door,” she says, “I never ran up against anything I thought would stand in my way because I was a woman.” That’s not to say, of course, that she hadn’t witnessed some of the industry’s growing pains. Attitudes, she observes, don’t change overnight.
“When I first started out, if there had been a report in the newscast about breast cancer, I automatically would have read that story,” she says, simply because it was considered more appropriate for a woman newscaster to say the word “breast.” The same aversion cropped up again, she recalls, when the first major coverage of Toxic Shock Syndrome required the word “tampon” to be mentioned so frequently.
Things , however, were effectively changed permanently, she notes, when the continuing saga of John and Lorena Bobbit dominated the airwaves, introducing previously-unspoken and arguably-provocative words into newscast scripts on a daily basis. After that, she says wryly, all bets were off.
Walker’s career also underwent a major but positive change in 2002, when she succeeded her popular colleague and friend Carol Jasen at Channel 4’s anchor desk, a role in which Western New York viewers have welcomed her warmly. In recognizing her good fortune, she gladly gives credit where credit is due — to those who’ve gone before her and made such media career success possible for women.
“My hat is off to Sheila and all of the women like her who’ve been trailblazers in our profession. I don’t think people realize how difficult it was,” she stresses, “to accomplish what they did in a role that had never existed before. It wasn’t easy,” she adds, “but it paved the way for the rest of us, and both our profession and the community are better for it.”
Murphy feels that her life has definitely been better for the experiences she’s been privileged to have had as a working reporter. The litany of stories she covered is certainly impressive. She has, for example, vivid memories of the Blizzard of ’77, although not from quite the same perspective as the rest of us who struggled through it.
Her recollections are of the pride she felt for having stood her post along with the rest of her Channel 2 News teammates, staying on the air and keeping Western New Yorkers informed through the ordeal, and that wasn’t a simple matter. Because of power interruptions, she and co-anchor Rich Kellman had to “tag-team” their coverage, with her broadcasting from the station’s transmitter in Wales Center.
The rest reads like the list of historic events they were. The 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon, which she ended up working round-the-clock to cover. The 1982 .22-caliber killer story. The 1983 propane tank explosion. And the installation of Pope John Paul II in 1978, an event that made history both for the world and for Buffalo broadcasting, with Murphy once again playing a key role.
At the time, sending local reporters off to cover stories in other parts of the world was not the commonplace occurrence it is today. And they certainly didn’t report those stories live as they do nearly all day every day today. But in 1978, that was about to change. Armed with the station’s “new” minicam – which she remembers being “about the size of a truck by today’s standards” — Murphy and her crew sent back Western New York’s first direct satellite feed from Rome’s historic St. Peter’s Square.
“First of all,” she reflects, “you think ‘How can I possibly be old enough to have been at all those milestones?’ And of course you are… as are your viewers and listeners. But the great part is that they’re with you through all these things. And it’s kind of nice to know that you can all say ‘I remember when.’”
Murphy remembers quite clearly when her journey to the next big destination that was awaiting her began. With television, a medium which by its very nature moves at the speed of light, changing with the times, that change was inevitably felt even at the level of local TV news, bringing Murphy to a point where she had some important decisions to make. Like “What’s next?”
Having covered the hard news of Buffalo, Erie County and Western New York, she had acquired some unique and valuable insights into what made the community work, and not work. So with the encouragement of her now husband of 19 years, Tony Tarquini, her family and her friends, she made a life-changing decision, opting to climb out of the frying pan of covering the news and jump feet first into the fire of making it.
With the natural theme “You know me,” she entered and won the September 1980 Democratic primary election for an At-Large slot on the Buffalo Common Council. In November of that year, she was again victorious, besting the five other, more politically experienced candidates to rack up the highest vote count and claim one of the three vacant seats.
The position, she points out, was short term by design, with a realignment and reduction of the Council already in progress. She did, however, relish the opportunity to wade into the issues she had previously only reported on and see if she couldn’t make a real and lasting difference for the community.
It’s no wonder that she couldn’t resist the opportunity to take that same enthusiasm for being an agent of change and pursue the possibilities of working toward it on an even bigger canvas. So when a call came from then-newly elected New York Gov. Mario Cuomo asking if she would be interested in serving in his new administration, she understandably jumped at the chance.
As one of Cuomo’s active supporters in that year’s election, Murphy knew and respected the new Governor and shared his vision of what was possible for New York State. The position she was offered — Assistant Secretary of State for the Western New York region — represented a rare opportunity to affect the quality of life of many people about whom she cared very deeply: The people she had served for so long as both a reporter and public official.
She embraced the challenge with a passion mirroring that of “the boss,” as she would call him, whom she would later come to describe as “the toughest boss you’ll ever love working for. But the people who worked for him were good,” she’s quick to point out, “because he made them want to be good. His expectations of excellence brought out the best in people.”
The better part of nine years she spent in the position were rewarding, she says. During that time, every public concern communicated to the Governor and his administration — on average some 3,000 a year — passed through her office. She often spoke on Cuomo’s behalf at community events and provided him regular briefings to keep him tuned in to what was happening in Western New York and what was on its citizens’ minds. It was, she recalls, both an education and an honor to work so closely with a person who, she believes quite appropriately, was frequently mentioned as potential President.
The time ultimately came, however, when she felt that she was no longer being effective. A series of life experiences, including the sudden loss of both her parents within a few months of each other, took a serious toll, prompting her to leave state government and return to a very private life out of the public eye.
She spent the time, she says, doing the things she loves. Gardening. Cooking. And volunteering her time to causes she believes in, including organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Books for Kids. It was the kind of community involvement, she notes, that in her day working newspeople were discouraged from becoming involved in. Now, she says, she had both the freedom and the time.
But as Murphy discovered, time can have a way of getting away from you. And not that long ago she came to realize that more than a decade had passed since she had been “in the business.” And that’s the way it probably would’ve stayed, she says, if it hadn’t been for another of those “right place at the right time” moments.
During her “volunteer years,” you can imagine how in demand a person with Murphy’s media savvy was, particularly for organizations in need of effective publicity to accomplish their important community service missions, which brings us to the “right time/right place” in question.
Recruited by longtime media pal Judy Chick to create promotional videos for a Gilda’s Club awards luncheon, Murphy attended meetings with media supporters WKBW-TV and Entercom Radio. While visiting their studios, she happened to get a look inside one of their high-tech production facilities. That was all it took. Murphy laughs as she relates — perhaps confesses is a better word — about the series of events that followed.
“If I just hadn’t gone in that production booth, I’d be fine. I’d still be happily raising tomatoes and cooking.” But for a self-described “nosey” person, she found what she saw in that studio fascinating… and extremely frustrating. “I hate not knowing how to do things,” she admits, obviously burdened with that annoying curiosity that seems to be an occupational hazard among reporters. And she found the idea of a whole new generation of young broadcast journalists working with cool, new technology that she knew nothing about unacceptable.
So when Entercom Radio General Manager Tim Wenger mentioned that the news department of the group’s WBEN-AM operation might be looking for reporters, “That meeting couldn’t have been over fast enough,” Murphy recalls. Before you could say “This is Sheila Murphy reporting,” she was down the hall at News Director Monica Wilson’s door. By October of 2004, she was back on the air.
Today, having celebrated her 60th birthday just this past May, she says that it’s like she never left — if you don’t count all the new technology and the fact that more than a few of the people she works with are too young to have seen her when she was on television. But even though the old rip-and-read days of clickety-clacking wire service teletype machines has been replaced by computerized news feeds and faxed media alerts, some things don’t change.
The satisfaction of being part of covering a story that’s important to your audience is one. Another is the reward of feeling like you really can appreciate the big picture on historic events. Murphy says she felt that as she reported on the recent passing of Pope John Paul II, remembering the excitement of covering the beginning of his Papacy live from Rome so many years ago.
And when people approach her to talk about her return to broadcasting, she finds that those moments give her great pleasure as well. “The reaction has been wonderful,” she says. “They tell me ‘I love that you’re back on the air,’ or ‘It’s so nice to hear your voice again,’ or ‘I always liked how you presented the news.’ It’s enormously satisfying.”
“I’m having a ball,” she says, and hopes that it never ends. Of course, if there’s a reason that she should stop, it’s news to her.
© 2005 Doug Carpenter
OLD TIMES: Back on the air today at WBEN, doing what she loves to do and
does so well
Photo by www.cherylgorski.com
|Photo by www.cherylgorski.com|
|Photo by www.cherylgorski.com|
EFFORT: Murphy works closely with WBEN 930 AM News Producer Randy Bushover
Photo by www.cherylgorski.com
|MATCHED SET: In the mid-'70s, Barry Lillis, Rich Kellman, Murphy and Ed Kilgore led the Channel 2 News team|
|Ch. 4's Jacquie Walker|
|Ch. 7's Susan Banks|
|AUTHORITATIVE: Her knowledge of WNY served Murphy well as a Channel 2 News anchor|
|LEARNING CURVE: WYSL/WPhD Radio News gave Murphy her first break in 1972|
|STATE OF THE STATE: Murphy's news savvy made her a major asset to Gov. Mario Cuomo|
|The On-Line Edition
of After 50 Newspaper for Western New York's Young @ Heart