Although about two years have passed since its $30 million renovation, the Morris Inn still smells of fresh paint, its floors so pristine that I have the absurd urge to take off my shoes when I enter. I make a right toward Rohr’s, where I’m welcomed by a hostess and a severe blast of air conditioning. With its heavy furniture, dripping lights and dark wood, Rohr’s is the somewhat edgy cousin of the otherwise daffodilish hotel. A little after 8 p.m. on a Thursday in July, about a quarter of the chairs are occupied, mostly by middle-aged patrons who have the weary eyes of professionals who’ve spent too much time with Excel.
I take a seat at the middle of the bar, fiddle with a recorder and spot my subject behind the counter, light hair and thin frame flashing in and out of sight as he fills orders. Soon he catches my eye and approaches.
“Hi, Murf,” I begin. “I’m here for . . .”
“I know,” he cuts in, wanting me to know he recognizes me. “How’d your play go?”
I’m surprised he remembers my play — I only mentioned it once in a text message when we were arranging a time to talk — but as I answer, I realize the question is trademark Murf. Making you feel heard. Remembered. This is Murf’s super power.
Murf would be the last person to describe himself in heroic terms. “I think any bartender in any local bar does the same thing. You try to remember a little bit about every person.” His tone isn’t one of false modesty; it’s dry and factual. “I’m just a guy who goes to work and hopes everybody leaves Notre Dame goin’, ‘Wow. This is a great place.’”
Murf has the build of a jockey, slim but strong. Framed by white hair, his face is youthful, skin smooth. He is clean-cut and dapper in a vest and tie, white shirt spotless and crisp. He has a gravelly voice and tends to cut the g’s off the ends of words. Sittin’. Talkin’. Livin’.
As we converse, his eyes flick about the bar, alert to new customers and empty glasses. He starts to describe the physical demands of the job — “You’re on your feet all the time” — but catches himself and invites a waitress into the conversation instead. “She has it worse than me. She’s here on Sundays, too.” Later, I find out Murf’s had both hips replaced. (Murf never mentions this; one of his friends tells me.)
Although Murf doesn’t allow himself to complain, he does reminisce. “It’s just not like the old bar,” he says, drying a glass and observing Rohr’s. Murf talks about the pre-renovation bar, Leahy’s, the way a parent talks about a child. He even keeps a photo of it nearby. “It was like family. You knew everybody.” Leahy’s seated 45 — most nights Murf washed dishes, waited tables and served drinks on his own — while Rohr’s accommodates 200.
- Father Ted’s Manhattan
- The Usual
When Murf discusses the “old bar,” he treads carefully. “I don’t want to say anything negative,” he says, acknowledging advantages of the renovation. “But ya know, [the night] that old bar closed, they kept telling us we had to get out. The bar was full. There was 50 people.” He pauses. “And they were cryin’. That place — that was part of their identity.” Murf looks up, light eyes full of a guarded grief, and I have a feeling that “they” isn’t exactly the right pronoun.
It’s difficult to get Murf to talk about himself. If he appears in one of his own stories, it’s usually as a secondary character. Over the course of several conversations, though, I begin to piece together a patchwork portrait.
Patrick Denis Murphy, a native of South Bend, began working at the Morris Inn as a busboy when he was 15. When he was in high school, his older sister died, leaving her two children behind. While balancing classes and work, teenage Murf helped raise his niece and nephew. He was drafted at age 19 and worked for the military police, stationed in Maryland. While serving as an MP, Murf would spend his 30-day leaves busing tables at the Morris Inn. “I picked up ‘Murph’ in the army,” he says. “But my dad is the one that shortened it to ‘Murf.’” When Rohr’s reopened, Murf was given a name tag that, to his dismay, read “Patrick.” No nicknames allowed. But guests didn’t remember a Patrick, they remembered a Murf, and after some time it was decided his tag should be changed. Considering he’s been going by Murf since 1971, it hardly seems to qualify as a nickname anymore. He got it back.
When Murf finished his service, he came back to South Bend and worked different jobs, taking a position at a factory before realizing he would rather work full time at the Morris Inn. He turned 64 on September 8. “The same birthday,” he says, “as the lady on the dome.”
Murf has observed the University’s many changes over the past four and a half decades from an intimate vantage point. He’s regarded as an unofficial Notre Dame expert whose athletic predictions carry more clout than those of most professional sportscasters. Regularly interacting with faculty, staff, students, parents, celebrities, donors, trustees, locals, politicians, coaches and athletes, Murf describes his significant campus job in modest terms: “You try to make them feel like they’re a part of Notre Dame,” he says. “And if you can do that, then you’ve pretty well done your job.”
His position makes him privy to some confidential University conversations, and he has earned widespread trust and respect, becoming a confidant to many. “When anything happens on campus — sports, a death, anything — Murf’s phone blows up,” that friend of his tells me. “I mean blows up.” People seek Murf’s opinions, and he’s protective of Our Lady in return.
He mentions an article that censured Notre Dame for its “rich kid” culture, claiming the University was unwelcoming to low-income students. Murf summarizes one student’s story in defense. The young man was from a poor family in Minnesota. His father unexpectedly passed away. His rector took him on a walk around the lakes to relay the news, assuring him that Notre Dame would fly him home. “What about my brother?” the student asked. The rector explained that his brother — who attended a large state school outside of Minnesota — would meet him in South Bend and they would fly home together. Throughout the semester, the student was fraught with grief and worried about his academic performance. Administrators and faculty worked to make his course load manageable and supported him through his mourning. His brother, in contrast, received no administrative compassion and fell behind.
“This place . . .” Murf breaks eye contact, makes a fist and lightly pounds his chest a few times. His eyes brim with tears. “This place is really . . .” the tears slip out. He doesn’t have to finish the sentence.
Murf himself has experienced the support of “this place.” He describes an event from when he was in his 40s that shook him financially and emotionally. In response, the Morris Inn procured more hours for him and a Notre Dame acquaintance provided housing until he was able to get back on his feet. “I’ve got to have a guardian angel,” he says. “I’ve got to.”
With his capacity for granting favors and making connections, Murf often plays that role. “You get to be a hero for doin’ the easiest things,” he says. “You get to be like Santa Claus.”
Arranging places for football fans to stay on the weekends, suggesting restaurants to newcomers, procuring tickets for fans who dream of attending a game, selling tickets for people who have too many, organizing stadium tours for those who couldn’t otherwise afford it — these are the gifts Murf makes possible. “I’m not even in these transactions,” he claims, although it’s very clear he’s right in the middle of these transactions.
One of his co-workers at Rohr’s, a young woman with a brunette ponytail, says Murf is protective and kind toward his fellow bartenders, most of whom are female and half his age. When she moved and couldn’t afford new furniture, Murf gave her some of his own. During one shift, he noticed that she seemed sad and asked what was wrong. She explained that it was her father’s birthday and she had requested the day off; her father was very sick and they never knew which birthday would be his last. “Murf got a little tear in his eye,” she recalls, “then disappeared in the back for a few minutes.” When he returned, he told her she had the rest of the day off. “I have no idea how he did it or who he talked to,” she says. “But I’ll never forget that.”
Murf’s “favors” sometimes register as tough love, especially when he’s trying to protect students from recklessness. “When kids come in on their 21st birthdays asking for shots, I don’t do it. I’ll make them a drink, but I won’t pour them shots.” In Murf’s view, shots are for “getting stupid,” and he won’t allow Notre Dame students to get stupid on his watch.
Although Murf is widely beloved by patrons, some guests are more difficult to reach than others. He recalls one regular in particular — a brilliant, renowned scholar — who took a long time to warm up to Murf. “He was mean,” Murf recalls. “Mean to me all the time. And I thought, ‘Gotta figure out a way to make this guy be nice to me.’”
How did he do it? The professor liked the television show Grumpy Old Men, so Murf started watching it. “He liked sports, so I had to know everything about sports.” This one was easier for Murf, who possesses an almost photographic memory for football. The man liked politics, so Murf started reading the paper for two hours every morning. Eventually, Murf proved his merit and gained the professor’s respect.
After some time, the man grew sick. “He had throat cancer. He had prostate cancer. Everything in the world was goin’ wrong with him, but he drank two glasses of wine every day.” Following surgery, the professor had difficulty swallowing.
One night, the man came to the bar looking gaunt and depleted. Murf says he went into the back and told the cook, “You need to make some food for him. He needs some mashed potatoes and some peas. Blend it up so he can get some energy.” When the cook complained that this would take too much time, Murf told him, “You talk to this gentleman. And if you don’t feel as if he needs food, then you don’t have to do it.” The cook complied. About 10 seconds later, he came back to Murf. “Okay,” said the cook. “What else I’m gonna throw in there is . . .” From then on, the cook made this specialized concoction every time the professor visited the bar.
Murf’s compassion extends to all corners of campus. When a student dies, the rector often takes the student’s family to the bar near closing time and asks Murf to join them for a drink. Murf struggles speaking with the parents of lost students. “I mean, I’m able to talk to them, but I have to keep walkin’ away,” he explains. “I can just picture . . . somethin’ like that happening. A kid . . . you don’t expect an 18-year-old, a 20-year-old kid . . . passing.” Murf has three sons, and as he speaks of the families that he’s consoled, his voice grows shaky.
What makes a good bartender? Murf has a direct, one-word answer. “Listening,” he says.
Although a seasoned and skilled listener, Murf is also in the business of telling stories. “Stories — I can sit and tell stories all day long.” He can. He does. Just say a name: Father Hesburgh. Joe Montana. Regis Philbin. Rudy. Ronald Reagan. John Kennedy. Murf has a story for every person, a story for every chair in Leahy’s, a story a night for his 46 seasons. Over the course of our talks, Murf spins tales of washed-up actors defacing menus, unlikely football victories, student gaffes. What the mayor of Seymour, Texas, had against Jim Seymour ’69, the wide receiver, and what the person who introduced George and Laura Bush had to do with it. The infamous patron who visited the bar in his pajamas the week before he died. Playing softball against Joe Montana for three years. Advising a bickering student couple to call it quits. Talking a sobbing French girl through her heartbreak over “about five bowls of Gardettos.” (A snack Murf does not sanction. “Death breath,” he warns darkly.) Giving the French girl a stick of gum before she confronted her boyfriend. What was really causing water consumption to skyrocket when the University opened admissions to women. What Lefty said about Kennedy’s hair.
The beginning of a Murf story often sounds more like the opening line of a political thriller or a Hemingway novel. “The guy never said a word, but I knew he drank a Bombay martini. . . .”; “He lifted up his jacket, and I saw he had a gun. . . .”; “So in walks the Kennedys, when all of a sudden . . .”; “Maria and Schwarzenegger are at the bar, and I say . . .”; “I’m takin’ prisoners to Fort Meade, a girl in the front seat crying her eyes out, when . . .”
This past winter, former Senator Alan Simpson stepped into the bar; he was in town for Father Hesburgh’s funeral. As Simpson entered, other guests clapped. “Here’s all these Notre Dame dignitaries, and here’s all the Notre Dame trustees and all these important people,” Murf recalls with an incredulous smile, drying a glass. And the first thing Simpson said when he entered Rohr’s? “Hold on, I gotta talk to my man Murf.” Murf was shocked. “I mean, everybody’s got degrees and they’re all millionaires, and he passes them up to make a point. Because — because of stories.”
As Murf tells me stories, pausing to take an order whenever a customer sits at the counter, the bar becomes fuller and fuller. Eventually the nightly traffic becomes too thick. Murf stops. “Here,” he says, “why don’t you talk to these characters down there?” He points me to two middle-aged men at the end of the bar. “They’ll have lots to say.”
I walk to the end of the bar, introduce myself and sit between the two men. To my left is Andy Chambers from Athens, Georgia, who trains bankers across America. He has a warm smile, a rich voice and a handshake so firm I have the compulsive urge to ask him for a loan. He explains that he’s been coming to Notre Dame every summer since 1990 for a two-week training program. Andy was in his 20s when he first visited South Bend, new to the job and subjected to long hours. He ended each day exhausted, looking for a place to unwind and enjoy a beer. One night, he decided to visit the nearby Notre Dame bar — at that time, still Leahy’s — and he’s been a regular on his summer visits ever since.
To my right sits Mike Patin of Lafayette, Louisiana. Mike’s been coming to the bar every summer for 14 years. Slight and charismatic, Mike works in ministry and speaks at Notre Dame’s Vision program. “This place has become a summer home,” he says.
Over the summers, Mike, Andy and a man from New York formed a friendship, with Murf as their common thread. The original trio that bonded at Leahy’s sounds like the setup to a joke: a banker, a minister and a scientist walk into a bar.
What do they have in common?
“Loving Notre Dame,” Murf answers as he prepares a drink. He dodges out of sight to attend the thirsty crowd.
“A whirling dervish,” Mike calls Murf. “That man is a whirling dervish.”
Mike extracts a button and gives it to me. “Have you seen this?” he asks. “Now, this is not sanctioned by the University.” The button is forest green with white lettering. LET’S GET MURF’D AT ROHR’S, it says. Andy and Mike laugh, claiming they have no idea who made them. Mike gives me his. One of Murf’s co-workers chimes in that there was a small movement to call the new bar “Murf’s.” The effort didn’t come to fruition, but an item on the menu is called a “Murf Burger.”
Mike values Murf’s egalitarian approach to service. “I’ve been in here at nights when there are trustees, and I’ve thought, ‘Well, we’re gonna take a backseat.’ Not the case at all,” he says, shaking his head. “Not the case at all. Murf has made me and all my ministry friends feel like a part of Notre Dame. He would treat us exactly the way he’d treat a trustee.” He handles guests, Mike says, as “a virtuoso handles the different sections of an orchestra.”
Knowing that Mike — an avid Notre Dame football fan — admired former coach Lou Holtz, Murf took an opportunity one evening to grant a wish. Murf quietly told Mike that Holtz was coming in, but, he added, “Ya gotta let him sit down for a minute, gotta let him have a drink. And then you can talk to him.”
Overcome by awe, Mike followed Murf’s orders, then approached Holtz. What resulted was a one-on-one conversation that still makes Mike glow as he recalls it. Back home in Louisiana a few weeks later, Mike received an envelope from Florida. He fishes in his wallet and shows me a letter from Holtz. “Now this is not the original,” Mike says. “The original is under stained glass and votive candle. But this is it.” In the letter, Holtz says he was happy to meet Mike and wishes him all the best.
Murf overhears the conversation as he fills drinks and rolls his eyes, as if he had merely handed Mike a Kleenex, not introduced him to his idol. “See, this is why I say I get to play Santa Claus. The easiest things.”
Mike shakes his head. “He’s not a bartender. He’s an ambassador.”
At The Mark restaurant a few days later, Murf orders a chicken sandwich. It’s strange to see him out of his uniform — like seeing a teacher outside of school.
One subject he often returns to is how badly people want to get into Notre Dame. He frequently speaks with prospective students and their parents, chatting about test scores, aware that their odds are slim. “How many kids come in . . . and they’ve been wanting to go to Notre Dame their whole life . . . and it’s just . . . it’s so hard.”
Murf recalls an encounter with one student who was suspended and eventually expelled for offenses related to reckless partying. Murf spoke with him at the bar. “And I told him: ‘I don’t care that you messed up, I care that [you] took a spot of a kid who really wanted it.’” Murf takes a deep breath, begins to lightly pound his chest again, blink hard and break eye contact. “Sorry,” he says. “Sorry.”
For more than four decades, Murf and Notre Dame have been linked in mutual service. And the affection so many have for the University — whatever their connection — owes much to the ambassador behind the bar. The man who has welcomed all into the Notre Dame family and left everyone going: “Wow. This is a great place.”
Tess Gunty is an MFA student at New York University.
Originally published by Tess Gunty ’15 at magazine.nd.edu on January 07, 2016.