Updated Sept. 29
Jo Ann Murphy was a natural for her active-duty job in U.S. Army Intelligence.
She’s intelligent, for one thing. She also sweats the details, and when she has an assignment, it gets done. This week, Murphy is retiring as Dukes County veterans agent, after 18 years on the job of making life and veterans services better for hundreds of Island military vets and their families.
You can salute Murphy on Sept. 26 at her retirement party between 5 and 8 pm at the P.A. Club in Oak Bluffs. This is not an order, but feel free to bring a potluck dish, as the community honors one of the Island’s genuine perpetual-motion service providers.
Earlier this month, The Times visited with Murphy at her County of Dukes County office in the Martha’s Vineyard Airport complex. Murphy is “short,”’ as service members say, and on the door of her office is a drawing of a helmet on a pair of boots with empty camo patches numbered 1 to 30 on the helmet. She colors in one patch each day.
This month, Murphy has also been working with her successor, Bruce Montrose, to ensure a smooth succession. “Now, Bruce is a Marine, but we don’t hold that against him,” she said with a grin. “We want him to be successful. This job is important to our vets,” she said in a more serious tone. Murphy was selected as Massachusetts Veterans Service Officer of the Year in 2014, while heading up the state’s only countywide veterans agent office.
“I’m not going anywhere, so I’ll be available to answer questions,” Murphy said. She will continue as commander of American Legion Post 257 in Tisbury and as a volunteer on veteran-related town committees, in her Girl Scout and Boy Scout work, as a Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders (SHINE) counselor, volunteering at her church, and keeping track of three children, a great-niece, four granddogs, two grandcats, and a grand-pig. That’s right, a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig named Piggy Small, who is potty-trained and has his own Instagram account with a few hundred followers.
“You gotta have a sense of humor in life. People I don’t know come up to me when I’m with Piggy. They recognize him,” she said.
Right now Murphy is wrapping up 18 years of military paperwork. “The military runs on its paperwork, so I never throw any records away because you never know,” she said. However, generations of Island vets needing services do know, after Murphy has provided the paperwork they needed to prove a point of military service or to access service. Her expertise has led to calls from state veteran officials inviting her to training sessions and to keep in touch.
Murphy is second oldest of five siblings of Ernestine and the late-Robert Kinnecom, on Wing Road in Oak Bluffs. Her husband, Brian, was a seafarer for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) who’d be gone 250 days a year at sea. “When he was gone, he was gone. No cell phones or email back then,” she said, providing a clue to her endlessly self-reliant and self-confident character. Her mother lives in Florida.
Murphy graduated from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in 1972, and found the U.S. Army, where the prospect of three hots, a cot, and $299 a month was enticing. “$300 a month was a lot of money back then. And no expenses? Sounded good to me,” she said.
Murphy was trained as a Morse code message interceptor in U.S. Army intelligence. That specialty sent its grads to interesting places, where there were messages that really needed to be intercepted. In her case, the place was the smallest Army intel unit in the world, deep in Thailand.
Talk about growing up fast. The larger unit around her intel squad led the armed forces in the rate of contracted venereal disease. Not that a nice Catholic girl needed a lecture on the pragmatics of sexual morality, but she got one anyway.
“I listened, and it really hit home one day when I went to sick bay [the doctor’s office] and found a line almost out the door. “Oh no, don’t tell me that’s the sick bay line!” she exclaimed.
“No, that’s the VD line. Sick bay’s over there,” a medic said, pointing to a door with no line.
Two years, 11 months, and 19 days later, Spec. 4 Kinnecom mustered out in Oakland, Calif., July 1975, spent a few weeks with Army buddies, then came back to the Island, made sergeant in the Army Reserves, but was restless. Off to Texas to stay with Army mates. There she met Ronnie Rutherford, married, and they had a daughter. Her husband died, and Murphy came back to the Island with little Kimberly, now chiropractor Kimberly Burke with John Lacoste’s office in Oak Bluffs.
In 1978, home from Texas with a 2-year-old, Murphy began the classic Island version of chasing the American dream, and the difficult American reality of doing it as a single mom. “I had a job with the federal CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) program finding jobs for people. It paid $125 a week, and babysitting cost $80,” she recalled.
The solution? Have a bunch of jobs, of course.
“I drove cab and worked for 14 years for the Fall River Herald News, which contracted to deliver all the off-Island daily and weekly newspapers to stores and institutions,” she said, noting that her mother delivered the Boston Globe on-Island for 25 years.
The newspaper job sounds simple, but it’s a killer. You meet the Patriot boat from Falmouth at 4 am, 365 days a year, rain, shine, snow, or ice, unload thousands of newspapers, keep them dry, sort them into individual drops, then hustle like crazy to finish by 7 am in time to begin your day job.
Over time, things improved for Murphy, as they tend to for those who work hard. She found a quarter-acre of Island land for $12,500 and a Farmers Home loan to finance it, built a prefab, and had her own home in 1982.
Along the way she met Island good guy Brian Murphy. They married 35 years ago, and produced son Patrick Murphy, who works for Rymes Propane, and daughter Amanda Murphy, a practicing acupuncturist in Los Angeles.
Jo Ann Murphy is living life well, and has more chapters yet to be lived in service to others.
Updated to correct several errors.