Mr. Memorial Day will be there in spirit on Monday

Mr. Memorial Day: Francis Murphy, shown speaking at a Cedar Grove ceremony in 2009. Photo by Bill ForryMr. Memorial Day: Francis Murphy, shown speaking at a Cedar Grove ceremony in 2009. Photo by Bill ForryMr. Memorial Day — Francis Murphy— will be absent from Monday’s solemn ceremonies in Cedar Grove for the second consecutive year. But the 88-year-old World War II veteran from Flavia Street will be very much on the minds of the veterans, neighbors, and families who’ll assemble on the cemetery’s lawn to remember our community’s war dead.

Murphy, who suffered a debilitating head injury in a fall last year that has left him unable to speak, now lives in a Quincy nursing home where, friends who have visited him say, he’s well cared for and looking good.

He was the man who made Memorial Day hum with precision and pride in post-war Dorchester as the ranks of local posts swelled with young men. Many distinguished veterans took their turns speaking at the podium or serving as parade marshals, but Dr. Murphy — a retired college professor — was the one constant all these years, making all the arrangements behind the scenes, fretting over the tiniest detail and, critically, pressuring Congressmen to make sure there was always a strong active-duty military presence at the parade.

Murphy often told the story about visiting then-US House Speaker John W. McCormack in his office one year and asking for help securing a band. The speaker picked up the phone and ordered the nation’s finest Marine band to get on a plane to Boston.

Fran Murphy’s job became more difficult in recent years as the members of his fellow ‘Greatest Generation’ were being lost to the ages in ever-growing numbers. But he was relentless. Each year, he could be counted on to stroll into the Reporter offices with an inch-thick manila folder loaded with intelligence about the impending parade. There’d be biographies on all of the speakers and marching units and photos of the committee of post members who had met to plan the day’s events. But, it was Fran Murphy who did the heavy lifting in the weeks that led up to the holiday and kept things moving with military precision on the day itself.

John Scannell, another Dot veteran who, at 86, continues to be instrumental in both Dorchester Day and Memorial Day events, offered poignant remarks at last year’s ceremony to note Murphy’s absence. Scannell sings a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem each year and also leads efforts to decorate Cedar Grove’s grave markers with American flags. By this Saturday, Scannell and his helpers will have planted 734 flags across the cemetery— and those are just the graves assigned to the Walsh Post, which he represents.

One of Fran Murphy’s great joys in recent years, Scannell recalls, was a 2009 visit to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. “Franny just loved being there,” says Scannell. “We were given a little tablet as a thank you for our service. He was very moved by that.”

In 2003, Murphy wrote a short article titled ‘Lest We Forget’ for the Reporter recalling the roots of Memorial Day in Dorchester. The Civil War veterans of Fields Corner’s old Benjamin Stone Post started the tradition of marching to Cedar Grove Cemetery in 1868, when the event was known more simply as Decoration Day. Wrote Murphy: “In the mid- 1930s the last veteran of the Civil War rode in an open Pierce Arrow touring car in Dorchester’s Memorial Day Parade. Dressed in his blue uniform with campaign hat, he was one of the last survivors of the Grand Army of the Republic who initiated the Memorial Day Observance at Cedar Grove. Veterans of the Spanish American War wearing blue coats, gray pants and navy blue garrison caps followed.”

Subsequent ranks of vets from the 20th century wars quickly filled in the gaps left by the old men of the Civil War, Murphy noted. And just as they did then, a new wave of Dorchester veterans are stepping up to fill in for Fran Murphy and his comrades.

This year, 36-year-old Greg Kelly, a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, will be the keynote speaker at Cedar Grove. Kelly, who is also a Boston Fire lieutenant, is part of a new generation of neighborhood vets who are getting more active in veteran affairs and re-energizing the old Neponset VFW Post next to Garvey Park.

Fran Murphy may not be able to be there on Monday. And, unfortunately, he can’t tell us what he thinks about that. But he should know that his neighborhood is stepping up to carry on his work, and that he won’t be forgotten.

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