A century’s worth of history: Murphy turns 100 Dec. 29

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By Molly Haines

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in December, just days shy of her 100th birthday, Margaret Alice Karsner Murphy sits alone at a makeshift desk in her bedroom. A copy of her latest book, “Dear Old K.F.O.S. My Memories of the Kentucky Female Orphan School 1935-1937” is placed in front of her.

She observes the pictures carefully, perhaps recalling an old friend or loved one. Her snow-white hair is neatly combed and tucked under a net, her hands folded across her lap. A pair of pink-frame glasses adorns her face, accentuating eyes that continue to sparkle despite the many heartaches she has endured.

Throughout the decades, Murphy has received many accolades for her dedication to preserving family and church histories. The author of 15 books and numerous articles for historical compilations, Murphy’s work will continue to inspire and inform generations long after she is gone.

Still, Murphy quietly insists that she doesn’t care much for talking about herself.

“I’ve lived a sad life,” she says. “But, it’s been a good life. That may not make much sense, but it’s true.”

By the age of 7, Murphy had become an orphan, losing her mother in the summer of 1925 and her father a short 11 months later. Despite experiencing such grief at an early age, Murphy says she and her elder brother Kenneth were never without love, and fondly recalls the few memories of her parents she retains.

Today, Margaret sleeps only a few footsteps from where she was born on Point Of Rock Road near Monterey, on a farm she says her father, a banker, had longed to own.

“Mama taught school, Papa was a banker,” she said. “The first place they bought was up on Old Frankfort Pike. That’s where brother was born in 1910. Mama said (Papa) would look out the kitchen window at this bottom and say, ‘Someday I’m gonna own that farm over in that bottom.’ Sure enough, he did.”

When the Karsners purchased their Point of Rock farm, Murphy said the house was newly-built, but her mother, Mattie Smith, later insisted the family move to Monterey.

Murphy smiles, “Mama didn’t want us riding horses to school. There were no school buses then. We were living in that first house as you go into Monterey. That’s where Mama died.”

Although the family’s time in Monterey was short, Murphy remembers well their neighbors, “Granny” and George Thornton, and how the couple enjoyed young Murphy’s visits.

“They wanted me because I was a little girl,” Murphy says. “I’d run off to their house, and Mama would whip me every time I did that. She couldn’t find out how I was getting over there, but there was a slat in the fence that just hung by a rusty nail. I found it and could move it aside, climb through and put it back in place. That’s how I was getting over there.”

Following her mother’s death while giving birth, the family returned to the farm on Point Of Rock Road. But it wasn’t long before tragedy struck again. Murphy’s father became ill and died from pneumonia 11 months after his wife’s death.

Following the loss of Murphy’s father, James Henry, the siblings moved in with their Aunt Maude and Uncle Evan Smith. But Murphy, longing to be with her cousin and best friend Lela Maude, soon found a new home with her Aunt Lela and Uncle Albert Karsner.

Both Maude and Albert — Murphy’s father’s siblings — had a lasting impact on Murphy’s life. She credits Maude for helping her to become a Christian, and both siblings for the education she would go on to receive. As she grew older, Murphy longed for an education, and Maude and Albert saw that she received just that from the Kentucky Female Orphan School (KFOS) located in Midway, Kentucky.

“I had heard about the girls school in Midway, Kentucky,” Murphy wrote in 2016. “I had always wanted to attend a girls school. My uncle and aunt entered me in the fall of 1935. “... It was a scary transition for me ... But my aunts and uncles, as well as my cousins, had provided plenty of love for me and my brother. (Lela Maude) had become like a sister to me. So, I would be leaving the only family I knew to live at Midway, Kentucky. Unlike today’s travel and today’s college experience, I would not be traveling home to Monterey, Owen County, Kentucky, just anytime I wanted.”

On the first day of school at KFOS, shortly after being dropped off by family members, Murphy encountered a girl — Lorene Catlett — sitting on a bench crying. The two 16-year-old girls exchanged names and hometowns and quickly began a decades-long friendship that included becoming sisters-in-law following graduation from KFOS.

Murphy attended KFOS from 1935 to 1937 and grins when she recounts memories with her two best friends, Catlett and Blanch Watson.

“We did everything together, or as much as we could,” Murphy writes.

One weekend, Murphy was to visit home for the bridal shower of a cousin, and invited Catlett along. While there, Murphy introduced Catlett to Robert Murphy. Little did Margaret know, Robert had a brother, Lindsey. The brothers attended the wedding shower with dates, but took their dates home early and returned for Margaret and Catlett.

“Those Murphy boys showed up at Midway every chance they got,” she writes. “The courting was very strict at the school. We were always chaperoned in the parlor. Quite often I would play the piano for them. “Soon after I graduated, Lindsey and I were married in September 1937. (Catlett) and Robert were married in May 1938. So, the two orphan girls received a large and loving family ... Robert and my Lindsey were the youngest of 10 children.”

As for KFOS, Margaret says it made her what she is today. In addition to the education she received — which included a certificate from Elliott Fisher Business School — Margaret said she also received “good Christian training,” training she would use for years to come.

On Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, Margaret and Lindsey were at home. The radio was on when news came that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Lindsey immediately informed his young bride that he would volunteer for the U.S. Navy the following day. Two years later, Lindsey was called to serve and was sworn in on Dec. 14, 1943.

Earlier that year, Margaret had assumed a position in the accounting office at the Curtis Wright Airplane Plant in Louisville. In the spring of 1945, Margaret quit her job while Lindsey was on leave, later joining him at the naval air base in Coronado Island, California, where he was stationed at the time. She went to work for the U.S. Naval Air Station at San Diego, California, ordering parts for the F4U Airplanes.

“I felt my job was important, that I was doing it for my country, of which I was proud,” she writes. “I was always proud that Lindsey volunteered even though I was against it at the time.”

The war ended in 1945, and Margaret and Lindsey would soon return to Kentucky, moving to the Point Of Rock Road farm where Margaret was born. The couple’s only son, James Karsner Murphy, was born in 1947. Lindsey would work construction while Margaret went to work for the Kentucky Department of Transportation in 1948.

Upon the couple’s return home, Margaret became heavily involved at Monterey Baptist Church, becoming the pianist for more than 40 years, as well as working with the youth in Bible study and leading a youth gospel group.

During a church business meeting in 1963, Margaret was called upon to write a history of the church, and although it took 13 years to complete, Margaret — at the age of 58 — became a published author and gained a “passion for history.”

“’Passion for history’ pretty well describes the lifestyle that I live today, and the life that I have lived since completing my first book, ‘Monterey Baptist Church and Community,’ released in 1976. “...With the release of that first book in 1976, I continued to pour myself into research and writing. When I was not writing, my mind was searching to remember people, events and scenes from our past. Sometimes it was hard to unwind when I would lay down for rest. During the nighttime hours, I did my best work. I viewed writing history as my job. This was a job I wanted to do.”

While writing her first book, Margaret would be faced with heartache once again with the loss of her husband, Lindsey, in December 1968, following a short illness.

But with the publication of her first book a few years later, Margaret seemingly entered the second chapter of her life, dedicating much of her time and effort to researching and writing histories of the people and places she loves.

Following the completion of her first book, Margaret would go on to author an additional 14 books concerning topics such as the Monterey school, Old Cedar Baptist Church and her most recent — completed at 99 years old with the assistance of her beloved friend Teresa Swigert — “Dear Old K.F.O.S.”

Although Margaret’s health has deteriorated over the last year, history — including that of her own family — continues to weigh heavily on her mind.

“It’s a lot of work,” Margaret said of compiling histories. “Traveling, making long-distance calls and all that. But I had that compulsion to write that family down for future children of theirs.”

As she nears the century mark, Margaret longs for her desk, a notebook and pen, but realizes her days of recording history in longhand may be over, though she is hopeful her daughter-in-law, Christina, will help her with perhaps another book on her Clark lineage.

“It just got in my blood,” she says of writing. “It came natural. Right now I wanna (write one more book), but it’s beyond me. I wanted to do the Clark line because my grandmother Karsner was a Clark.”

One of only two living charter members of the Owen County Historical Society, she was named Owen Countian of the Year in 2010, is a member of the Daughters of American Revolution in Frankfort and was awarded the National Historic Preservation Medal from the National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, is a Kentucky Colonel and was instrumental in getting the town of Monterey on the National Historic Register.

Upon turning 99 in 2017, the historical society gave Margaret a birthday to remember, inviting the community to celebrate alongside her and honored her with a plaque for her decades-long dedication to preserving local history.

She reflects upon the celebration with a slight grin, pointing toward the plaque that now hangs above her bed, “I’m not gonna have all that this year. I’ll spend (my birthday) quietly at home with my family.”