John “Jay” Murray III, the grand marshal of the 2014 Montgomery County St. Patrick’s Day parade, sits in a hard wooden chair hastily moved into the kitchen of the Ancient Order of Hibernians Division hall in Swedesburg. It was the only room available for an interview. You couldn’t hear yourself speak downstairs in the bar, and the Irish Thunder Pipes and Drums had just started wailing away in the meeting room next door.
So there we sit, a stockpot and an industrial-size colander drying in the sink, a glassed-in commercial fridge humming away alongside us, and a 50-pound sack of potatoes behind us on the counter.
Murray’s dark hair is neatly parted in the middle, as it always is. He is wearing a neat gray suit and a blue dress shirt, his black shoes gleaming with what looks like a fresh spit-shine. Still, his tie is loosened, his arm is draped over the back of the chair, and he’s slurping a pint of Guinness. He’s relaxed.
Hard to believe that this mild-mannered all-round nice guy was once a narc for the Norristown Police Department. You can’t imagine how he pulled it off.
Murray was a cop for almost 27 years, rising through the ranks to become a detective. (He reluctantly accepted a buyout in 1996.) He loved his job, and he especially loved being a detective. He acknowledges that cops are exposed to the ugly side of human nature, but early in his tenure at Norristown PD, Murray learned to separate the professional from the personal. The lesson came by way of his father, John “Jay” Murray, Jr., also a Norristown police officer, a hail-fellow-well-met type who went on to become mayor of Norristown.
“I worked good cases.” Murray says. “I wasn’t taking domestic disturbances or ‘someone stole the flower pots off my porch,’ the minor stuff. I was doing robberies, burglaries and homicides. Stuff where you can do some god investigation work. I had a good career. It keeps you you going. But I never brought anything home. What happened at work stayed at work. I learned how to turn it off. My dad was a policeman for 22-23 years, the same as me. When I joined the force, he was still there. We had long talks and stuff. Words of wisdom. He was rough and tough, but he had a heart of gold. He told me that there was the police side of life, and then there was the other side. He said you take all my good stuff and keep that. Let the other stuff go.”
Anyone who knows “Jay” Murray can tell he learned his lesson well.
Murray and his pop were close. Where his father led, he would follow. Which is how Murray, along with his dad, became founding members of the AOH division.
An old friend from the force, Jim Cahill, was a member of another Montco AOH division, but he thought there was room in the county for another one. The problem? You need a minimum of 12 members to start a division. Cahill had rounded up a few prospective members—but he needed more.
“Jimmy had called me and asked him about it, and I kinda said, ‘I’m doing this and doing that. But he got to my dad. He knew my dad. Finally, after a couple of weeks or a a month of this, my dad called me, and said, ‘C’mon. we’re going to join.”
Almost immediately, the division grew by leaps and bounds. Murray became the division’s first secretary, and he continued to assume leadership roles in the nascent division. The two Murrays assumed prominent roles. So prominent, in fact, that when the division started to work on the Montgomery County St. Patrick’s Day parade, John “Jay” Murray, Jr., became grand marshal in 1995.
Murray went on to become one of the founders of the division’s pipe band. He learned how to play the pipes, and he brought along his brothers, Bernie and Mike, who became drummers.
As it happens, Murray’s father stimulated his interest in piping. “My dad had taken me a few times to hear pipe bands when I was a kid. It always stuck with me. I always had a love for it, so I did it. Then my oldest son Sean said, ‘I’d like to do that, too.’ I was here, and then he came along not too long after.”
Murray has enjoyed a good life, surrounded by loving family and friends, but hard times came late in 2013, when his wife Donna passed away. He has good days and bad days. The night we spoke, he admitted, was a bad day.
The days immediately following his wife’s death were especially hard.
Then came the division’s annual Appreciation Day on December 21. Murray didn’t want to go, but his sons, Shane, Casey and Sean, talked him into it. “I hadn’t been around since my wife passed. My kids ganged up on me and said, ‘C’mon, dad you haven’t been out. You should go.’”
Traditionally, the grand marshal is announced at Appreciation Day, which Murray knew all too well, since he had been parade chairman. The sons knew what was up, but Murray had no idea.
“The guy doing the announcing was the parade chairman, Jimmy Gallagher. I was on the police force with Jimmy when he first came on. He was still in uniform. I broke him in. We’ve been good friends ever since. First, he announced a couple of awards for something or other … and then he looks at me, and then he looks away, and then he announces me. I was flabbergasted.”
It was a much needed lift that at least temporarily eased some of the pain. It’s hard, but he manages to count his blessings.
“It’s an honor. I know the things that go into nominating someone who is deserving. We’ve had some really good ones—all nice guys, all decent guys. It feels real good to know they must think you’re a really nice guy too. It’s nice to be loved.”
And once again, Murray’s thoughts turn to his pop. “I knew what they thought of him. It feels good in my heart to know that they think his son deserved it, too.”
The Montgomery County parade marches down Fayette Street in Conshohocken on March 15, starting at 2 p.m.