State service honors ex-speaker

Associated Press
Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin pays her respects to former House Speaker Tom Murphy in the rotunda of the state Capitol.

ATLANTA --- Georgia said goodbye Friday to its longest-serving speaker of the House of Representatives with a special service for Tom Murphy, who died Monday at 83.


Current and former members of the House met in the chamber for a prayer service for the man who presided over them for 28 years.

"While this service will mark the last time the man known as Speaker Thomas B. Murphy will be physically present in the House chamber, it will not be the last time his presence will be felt in this Capitol and in this state," current speaker Glenn Richardson said.

Mr. Murphy ascended to power when Democrats controlled every major state office and was finally defeated by his hometown Bremen voters in 2002 as Republicans began to wrest control. Two years later, Republicans gained a majority in the House and elected their own speaker, Mr. Richardson.

The morning ceremony had a festive mood as old colleagues reminisced about the gruff but lovable country lawyer who rode herd with an unlit cigar in the corner of his mouth and a mighty rap with his oversized gavel.

Mr. Murphy's 28 years presiding not only set a record for the state but also for the nation as the longest tenure of any legislative presiding officer.

His casket was borne by an honor guard from the Georgia State Patrol and escorted by the retired trooper who had been his bodyguard and longtime friend, Butch Benefield.

His successor as speaker, ex-Rep. Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, said Mr. Murphy shared the traits of Harry Truman and Teddy Roosevelt.

"He had a reputation for gruffness," Mr. Coleman said. "The truth is, he had a heart of gold and a soft heart, and he was so fair.

After the service, Mr. Murphy's body lay in the Capitol rotunda. He is the 22nd person to lie in state.

The public was allowed to pay their respects from noon until 4 p.m. when the body was transported for today's service at a Waco technical college auditorium near the Alabama border.

Democrat Carl Sanders, of Augusta, was governor when Mr. Murphy was a young committee chairman, and he recounted how the two remained friends after the governor stripped him of his chairmanship for opposing a piece of legislation.

"The essence of Tom Murphy is he had a sharp mind, a quick temper, and a big heart," Mr. Sanders said.