EAST END, NY — How do you write an obituary for someone you can’t imagine could be gone? Someone so full of life and energy, known for his trademark infectious laughter and huge smile, for his tireless quest for the truth and fight for the underdog— and all dogs, the four-footed kind he adored so completely.
Rick Murphy, who died at 70 on Tuesday, July 21 at Southampton Hospital after cardiac arrest, was, literally, a life force. The longtime executive editor at The Independent newspaper on the East End, Rick, who lived in East Hampton with his beloved wife Karen Fredericks, was a newsman to his very core.
How to begin? Well, to start, Rick would get a good, long laugh out of this because the last thing he’d likely want upon his untimely demise would be me, the reporter he dubbed “Lefty” because of my often-bleeding heart and propensity for breaking into sobs in the office in the middle of an particularly heartbreaking interview, flowering up this last tribute to his tough-talking, justice-seeking, scandal-revealing self.
But then again, he’d probably secretly like it. Because under that take-no-prisoners facade, the guy had one of the softest hearts around.
I could write an obit listing Rick’s long string of journalistic accolades, beginning in childhood. “Rick’s first foray into journalism occurred when he was nine years old and attending Saint Francis of Assisi, a Catholic School in Brooklyn,” Karen Fredericks, Rick’s beloved wife, told Patch. “He wrote a newspaper called The Noogie News’. The nuns were so impressed with his journalistic effort, that they printed up copies on the school Rexograph machine for distribution to all of the students in his grade.”
I could mention Rick’s awards, from all manner of renowned news organizations and associations; he won six New York Press Association Best Column awards and was a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee. Before taking the editorial helm at the Indy, where he first came onboard in 2003 and rose to the ranks of co-Executive Editor in 2016, Rick lent his talents to The East Hampton Star, the Sag Harbor Herald, and the New York Times.
After the devastating news of his loss, Indy staffers paid tribute.
Advertising executive and Jerry Della Femina, also a longtime Indy owner and partner, paid tribute to his colleague and friend.
“What I loved about Rick Murphy was that he was fearless. His column was dangerous. One funny column Rick wrote about candidate Barack Obama angered and turned the whole town of East Hampton against us. I was summoned to a meeting of 200 angry East Hampton residents who booed me when I was introduced and insisted that I fire Rick or they would put the Independent out of business,” he said. “I refused. I took the worst verbal beating of my life. I apologized but I insisted that I would keep Rick. As I was being punched around I kept thinking, ‘My God, Rick Murphy can really get a reaction from his readers. I’ve got a great writer. I will never let him go.’ And I never did.”
Others remembered a journalist who made a difference.
“I was proud to make newspapers with Rick for more than four decades. Rick was a truly seasoned news reporter/editor and an excitable sports fan,” said Jim Mackin, chief operations officer, Dan’s Independent Media. “Serious and focused when needed, with the element of levity always near. His news articles, features and his column Low Tidings were all award winners and touched many East Enders’ lives. Rick never missed a deadline in all the years I worked alongside him and was generous with his time teaching and being benevolent to many a needy cause.”
Bridget LeRoy, Indy co-founder and editor, reflected.
“Working with Rick was like working with the most ethical, professional journalist in the world, but with a 12-year-old boy’s sense of humor. It was a laugh a minute. He was opinionated, funny, somehow both vulgar and prudish at the same time, generous, a mentor to so many, and a constant surprise. He worked so hard, churning out copy with a smile on his face,” she said. “I loved it when he would wax on about some favorite article he had read in some ancient gray lady of a newspaper that’s probably no longer in circulation. He loved newspapers. He loved journalism. And he really loved to stir sh*t up, old school style.”
And said Jessica Mackin-Cipro, Indy’s associate publisher/executive editor: “I always admired Rick’s ability to play it cool. He never broke a sweat on deadline. It was like he had it all figured out. I’m pretty sure he did.”
When she first started at the paper, Mackin-Cipro said Murphy wasn’t like most bosses. “He had a Grateful Dead tapestry above his desk and would walk around barefoot. He made me realize work could be fun. His laugh was contagious. There were many laughs. He may have been known as an investigative journalist, but he was also a great music writer. He’d tell me to pass him all of the ‘old rockers’ from the 60s and 70s for interviews. He’d be on the phone talking so much to them about their music, I’d wonder how they’d even get a word in for the interview, but he’d always get it. He loved it.”
And, she added: “I learned so much from him. Everything I know about journalism I learned on the job by watching those around me. Rick played a major role in that for me. As Indy’s executive editors we balanced each other’s strengths and I know we did great work together over the past few years. I am honored to have worked with him for the past 15 years. He will be deeply missed as a friend and a colleague.”
I could mention the elected officials who were shaken at the news of his loss.
“I’m in shock,” said Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, who said he had known Murphy for more than 20 years. “He was always looking out for the little guy, the working person,” he said. “He loved politics, almost like a hobby — and he loved to predict who he believed the winners losers of elections would be.”
Murphy, Schneiderman said, would dig to get to the truth, “which is a really important thing in journalism, to help us get through the terrain of false and misleading information. It was important, to have someone so committed to getting it right.”
And, Schneiderman said, Murphy was always eager to “take a stance on the big issues. He asked knowledgeable questions that were really nuanced — and he didn’t want superficial answers. He wanted details.”
He added: “He would dive deep into a story just to get to the truth. He was fearless.”
“I am saddened by this loss. His character, charm and his wit will be solely missed,” said Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell. “He showed us all that journalism can be serious but not always. Sometimes, it can be fun, too.
I could say all of those things. But when someone who’s played a central role in your life has died, it’s hard not just to remember your old boss, your colleague, your editor, your friend. The man who was more like a big brother, who reminded you to eat your vegetables and not Pringles and swapped Moody Blues stories for your Bee Gees tales.
Music, and especially the Moody Blues, were a touchstone for Rick. “I vowed to see the Moody Blues again,” Rick told me in 1014, after I’d told him about a Barry Gibb concert. He told me he’d driven 280 miles the year before to see them and bought an expensive ticket. “It was unbelievable,” he said. “40 plus years ago I had seen the band at Carnegie Hall and it brought me right back. They were just as good, if not better. It made me realize the power of music anew.”
That love of the Moody Blues went back to college; Rick said they’d opened up an Alexander’s at Kings Plaza in Brooklyn, where he grew up. He got a job in the record department and what he played was piped through the whole store.
He brought that love of music right into the Indy offices. “He had this falsetto singing voice and some afternoons we’d spend hours online calling up oldies and he’d start singing,” Kitty Merrill, Indy news editor who worked with Rick for years, said. “I’d search for songs to get him going.”
Rick, she said, loved the Grateful Dead. And, said Merrill, he also loved The Rascals and Felix Cavilieri.
Sharing that joy of music was Rick’s milieu: When the Ross School hosted a series of expensive, one-night-only concerts — the shows cost literally thousands of dollars — the paper was sent press comp tickets. Rick made sure everyone who wanted to, had a chance to go to one of the scheduled performances. Although we did argue because I wanted to see Prince — and so did he.
“Do you have a Prince CD in your car that you play every day?” I asked.
I won. He gave me the ticket, and it was a show I’ll treasure forever.
Rick was generous as an editor — he wasn’t afraid to share his years of experience. He believed in digging deep and when he sniffed out a scandal, he was relentless. One day, he wanted me to investigate some “double dipping” among officials and he brought a literal shopping bag of documents into the office and dumped it on my desk. I was daunted, and he wouldn’t let me slide by, but it was one of the best articles I’ve written, to this day.
He wasn’t an editor who wanted all the glory — he was happy to share, to impart the tools to let the reporters he’d mentored, shine.
“Rick Murphy gave me my first newspaper job at the Independent and he really took me under his wing, encouraging me to go after every professional opportunity that arose,” said Carey London. “He was dogged about his work, but he was also lighthearted and playful, making the office fun and often hilarious. I will miss him, and his infectious laugh, dearly.”
She added: “He ended up being like a second father to me.”
And, said Merrill: “He made us all laugh and when he replaced our beloved editor, those of us still in the office wanted to hate him, but we just couldn’t.”
Murphy, she said, loved to cook and make extravagant meals. “To this day, he’d say he was making something ‘with a nice veal demi-glace’, and I’d roll my eyes, and he’d say, ‘We’re not savages!’
“And, knowing I basically lived like a frat boy, he’d ask, ‘And what are we making for dinner at the Merrill house tonight?’ then descend into gales of laughter. My retort would always be, ‘If you have the energy to make dinner, you didn’t work hard enough.'”
The banter echoes.
“I never argued or screamed at anyone so much in my life,” Merrill said. “We bickered every day. But he became family, you know?”
In his column, Low Tidings, later dubbed Rick’s Space, Rick opened up to let readers into his life and heart in a way only the truly greats can do. He wrote about gardening, painting verbal images of the tomatoes, rich in the soil. He wrote with the enthusiasm of a boy about baseball cards and fantasy football.
And he wrote about the love of his life, his Karen, about her love of yard sales and how they navigated the coronavirus with laughter.
“Karen and I are basically children, our maturity level stuck around eight. She draws cartoons. I read comic books and play with baseball cards. We whine,” he wrote.
Rick Murphy was born to Stanley and Eleanor Murphy (nee Forcucci); he was a Brooklyn boy who spent summers in Sag Harbor and later attended Long Island University. Karen, too, was born in Brooklyn.
They were married on May 4, 1996 and while many can talk about what Rick meant to them, it is Karen who was his world. And he was the heart of hers.
“Rick said he knew the minute he heard my voice that I was telling the truth,” Karen said. The two spoke for six months on the phone until the day the incident she was fighting was scheduled on the court docket and she headed from New York out to East Hampton.
“Rick walked up to the courtroom and looked through the window and saw me, and said it was love at first sight,” she said.
“He did an interview once and was asked, ‘What did you like about her?’ and he said, ‘She kept telling me she was getting shafted by the police.’ He loved that I was such a little toughie; I wasn’t going to give up.”
She was a gifted illustrator and cartoonist and he, a journalist. He was outgoing, she was more reserved. But they connected from that first day, and it was a love that lasted forever.
“Even if I’m not a journalist and I find truth through humor, we were both on the same mission,” Karen said.
Rick, she said, “had a fire in his heart for the fourth estate. That’s what made him so brilliant.”
While today, many are deeply divided, Rick “was a centrist. He really cared so much about the core of justice and its relationship to journalism,” Karen said. “He was profoundly aware of what the fourth estate really means. He served that truly. And in doing so helped rid our community of some real corruption or defended some in the public eye that needed that defending. All he really cared about was the truth.”
She added: “She was one of the most brilliant, fierce and passionate investigative journalists that ever existed. You couldn’t keep anything from him.” She laughed. “As his wife of a quarter of a century, I would have never tried lying to him. He would have nailed me to the wall in five seconds. He had that ear.”
He was able to know in an instant if someone was trying to evade the truth, she said.
While they shared a deep and abiding love, they also learned from one another, Karen said. “He taught me something profound about life. You can’t love or team up with people if you can’t survive each other’s anger. Life isn’t all peaches and cream. And if you love each other, anger comes with the laughter and tenderness, part and parcel. It was wonderful to learn that.”
Her husband, Karen said, “got to the core of things with passion, humor — and he was shockingly intelligent. He was shocking in his brilliance.”
Rick, she said, shared his love of journalism with Karen, nurturing her as a reporter at Indy. “He was a wonderful mentor,” she said. “We were very well-suited. We were both these feisty little snots from Brooklyn. We grew up three streets away from each other; he dated one of my older sister’s friends.”
Asked to describe him, Karen said: “Sometimes he came across loud, and rough, but he was so tender. We got each other. We were neither of us easy people, and it was such a wonderful and delicious relief to go, ‘Okay, I can have a big mouth.’ And I got how tender he was. He was the most tender-hearted person in the world. He was so sweet.”
With their dogs, first whippets Rudy and Garcia and then Coco, Rick was smitten, Karen said. They adopted Coco from the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons and when he walked up the stairs and saw her for the first time, “He started yelling, ‘Adoption papers, adoption papers!’ He tripped, going up those stairs.”
He even had a birth announcement crafted for Coco, Karen said. His love for dogs ran so deep that Rick even once shaved his head for a charity event to raise money for ARF.
She loves Coco completely, and Coco adores her, Karen said. “But the true bond was between the two of them. When he came home, the show she would put on! She would leap up and cover his face with kisses.”
As he lay dying, hospital staff let Karen bring Coco in to the hospital, to lick Rick’s face one more time.
For all his fierce dedication to journalism, Rick also loved fantasy sports, baseball, football, gardening — and he was a great cook. “He loved it; it was like his meditation. He shopped for it, he cooked it, and he cleaned,” she said.
Without him, Karen said, “I didn’t even know where the corkscrew was — 26 years and I haven’t opened a bottle of wine on my own.”
Her husband, despite his busy schedule, would drop everything to drive her to an appointment.
“I’m a little bit nervous and he was a caretaker,” she said. “I used to say the secret in life is to marry a martyr.”
The two shared a joke, when one of them was feeling “particularly martyr-ish, he would stand with his hands turned up to the sky, and put ketchup on both of his hands, the top of his foot, the center of his forehead. When things had gone too far, it was time for the ketchup stigmata,” Karen laughed. “He was hilarious. Just a joy. I don’t think I ever stopped laughing.”
Her voice soft, Karen said, “It was an amazing match. He was someone who leaves the better than when he entered — and not everyone is.”
During the last few months, Rick worked at home due to the pandemic. “I had to adjust to his working from home,” she said. “My office was right next to his. You can’t imagine the racket! Life was shaking and baking in that room, all day long. He’d come out cackling and giggling and telling me about what a person had just said. He was so much fun.”
The two were a team; she’d show him all her illustrations for the cartoon and ask his advice. “He treated me with such respect,” she said. “He was a brilliant partner.”
Without Rick, Karen said she would never have had her cartoon strip “Is it just me?”, since her work method “was to basically follow him around with a pen writing down what he said. He was an absolute riot and wealth of material.I always said: ‘I married my material.'”
From their first date, both knew. As she was getting on the Jitney, they agreed that from that moment forward, they’d found their forever.
“We knew right away,” she said.
Every year on their anniversary they dined at The Palm in East Hampton, where they’d had their wedding.
“This year, they were closed because of the coronavirus and we thought we could still get dressed up and take the picture. But we put it off, and now it’s too late,” she said.
On May 4, 2021, they would have been married 25 years. And for each of those days, they were inseparable.
Even during his last moments, Karen was with him. “I had one hand in his and the other on his heart. I felt it slow down,” she said.
She played the Grateful Dead and “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues, Rick’s favorite song, in his hospital room.
“I was with him when he left this earth and it was beautiful. He left this earth with my hand on his heart. It was as great as such a horrible thing can be,” Karen said.
If she speak to her husband one more time, Karen said: “I would say, ‘I may have told you a million times how much I loved you, but that wasn’t enough.'”
She did a cartoon once that reflected their familiar words. “He used to say ‘I love you to infinity,’ because that’s the most you can be. And I would say, ‘I love you infinity — times two.'”
Her voice breaking, Karen said: “Right now, I’m saying, ‘Ricky, where are you? Come home. Get your goddamn ass back here, buddy. And don’t make any stops on your way home.'”
She added: “My life began when I met you.”
Karen said while she’d had a good life, with a family she loved, “meeting Rick was the moment my life ignited. It was joy, it was hilarity. He was special and wonderful. Life is stunningly quiet right now. The silence is deafening without him. He was such a presence.”
It took much thought, trying to decide how to end this tribute to a man who meant so much to so many.
And in the end, it’s his words, his voice, that will live on in his writing. It was his incredible, memory-laced, exuberant, scandal uncovering, digging-down-deep for the truth writing that will resonate in all the minds and hearts he touched, in all the wisdom he shared, in all the care he showed, in all the gestures he made, such as reaching out with an email, just to check in and catch up.
In a last column for the Independent, these were the last words of Rick’s piece, which was perfectly and wonderfully, all about sports:
“Sports are not a cure-all; in fact, there are those who argue we as a society would be better off without the emphasis on violence, the reinvention of the American male as a ‘roid’-raged animal, and the portrayal of the average family man as a beer drinking lout who would abandon his kids every Sunday for a good tailgating with brats and brewskis. That’s too much a generalization.
‘It’s our love of competitiveness being rekindled; our inner hormones churning like they did in the fifth grade during the first day of Little League football practice.
“This is us, folks: We don’t want certificates of participation. We don’t want all the kids to play the same amount of time. The best players play.
“All I ever wanted, really, was a level playing field. When you’re a little schmuck you’re going to get hammered on the playing field, but you know that going in. You make the call. It’s the love of competition. When you get hit enough, you hit back, and that’s the essence of life.
“It’s when they take that away that we have a problem.”
Rick Murphy is survived by his sister Phyllis Howell and brother-in-law Robert Howell. He was predeceased by his brother Stanley Murphy Jr. and his daughter Anna Rose Murphy.
Donations in Rick’s memory can be made to Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons, 124 Daniels Hole Rd, East Hampton, NY 11937.
A memorial service will follow in the fall.
This article originally appeared on the East Hampton Patch