Meri Lou Murray remembered as 'a force of nature' in Washtenaw County's political history
Meri Lou Murray, considered one of the most influential political figures in Washtenaw County history and the founder of the county's parks system, has died.
Murray, who served on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners from 1973 to 1996, passed away peacefully on Sunday following a battle with lung cancer. She was 79.
"She was managing well until just about a week ago when suddenly she could no longer get out of bed," said Tom Murray, her husband of 60 years.
Local politicos and others who knew Murray, a lifelong Democrat, are remembering her for her many contributions to the county during nearly a quarter of a century in office.
"She was just a force of nature," said Janis Bobrin, the county's water resources commissioner and a close friend of Murray's.
Murray became the first woman to chair the county board in 1975. When she first ran for office in 1972, she campaigned on a platform calling for bus service connecting Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti and a countywide parks system, and she delivered on both.
Bobrin said she admired Murray for her political smarts.
"Meri Lou could, through sheer force of will, get a tremendous amount done," she said. "I got to know her originally when I was an employee at SEMCOG and she represented Washtenaw County. And I can say nobody knew how to work the system to get done what she did in terms of getting the regional agency to respond to the needs of the county."
Courtesy of Tom Murray
"She just cared so much about this county and about doing the right thing for people. She really did transform county government," Bobrin said. "We were lucky to have her — very lucky."
Murray lived in Ann Arbor's Georgetown neighborhood and represented that area of the city on the first elected board of commissioners.
She retired from politics undefeated in 1996, handing the reins off to Leah Gunn, who ran to replace her in 1996 and has held the seat ever since.
Gunn, who is retiring this year and passing the torch to Yousef Rabhi, said she worked on all of Murray's campaigns, starting with the first one in 1972.
"What most people do not remember is that in 1972, that was the first elected board of commissioners," Gunn recalled. "Prior to that, it was the board of supervisors, and the township supervisors were the county commissioners."
The first job of the newly elected county board was to create a new way of administrating the county, and the first budget is said to have been written at Murray's kitchen table.
Murray also is remembered for advocating for the hiring of a county administrator and pushing for a more professional operation focused on providing services for residents.
Gunn said she has fond memories of standing in the rain with Murray at 3 a.m. on the morning after her first election victory in November 1972.
"And she said to me, 'Leah, I never would have been elected without you,' and it was true," Gunn said. "We worked so hard and she won ... and she never was defeated after that. The Republicans always threw someone at her, but they could never beat her."
County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum recalled Murray's significance in Washtenaw County's political history in an email to fellow county employees this week.
He called her "without a doubt the most influential commissioner" during her many years on the board. Murray was elected chairwoman or vice chairwoman for 10 of those years.
"Even when she wasn’t, she was usually the power behind the throne," Kestenbaum said. "She was tough, smart, funny, pragmatic, honest, and knowledgeable. She was a tenacious fighter for her ideas. She was also acerbic, even caustic, and had no patience for critics."
Kestenbaum recalled intense infighting on the county board during Murray's tenure and said she was the opposite of a consensus builder. Rather, her approach was to put together just enough votes to hold a majority, and then disregard the others, he said.
"But Meri Lou was perhaps the leader we needed in that era; she brought the county through important and necessary transitions," Kestenbaum said. "The impact of her ideas and efforts can still be seen throughout our county government."
"She was a very deft politician," she said. "She was a person who basically took no prisoners. She had a coalition. You were either with Meri Lou or against Meri Lou."
The county recreation center at the corner of Washtenaw and Platt is named in Murray's honor. In her early years on the board, she was considered the driving force behind the creation of the county parks and recreation commission, which she served on for 24 years.
Murray convinced the road commission to allow the parks commission to take over several roadside picnic sites, which became the first county parks. She also helped develop the first parks master plan and led the effort to put a county parks millage on the ballot in 1976.
The parks system blossomed from there.
Outside the political arena, family was a big center of her life. Her husband said she enjoyed spending time with her four children and seven grandchildren.
"She loved cooking for her family. She was an excellent cook," Tom Murray said. "She painted pictures of all her grandchildren and their dogs. She was an excellent watercolor painter. But there's nothing she liked better than helping her children or grandchildren."
Friends and family said Murray got her last three wishes before she died: to see her triplet grandchildren graduate from high school, to go up north on a traditional vacation with her family for two weeks, and to not have a long and lingering illness.
Tom Murray recalled letters the grandchildren wrote to his wife, carrying simple, loving messages like: "You always cut up the watermelon just the way I liked it."
He said his wife's sense of family responsibility and devotion to the local community prevented her from ever seeking higher office.
"She was committed to the local community," he said. "She didn't have a very good attitude toward people who used local government as a stepping stone to higher office and was proud of the fact that she served so long in local government."
Even when she didn't have an opponent or an election to win, she always went door-to-door in her district, talking with voters about issues, her husband recalled.
"She wouldn't just go door to door like they do now and drop a piece of literature," he said. "She would stop and talk and people would invite her in. Now people say that's a lost art."
Friends and family say Murray's legacy lives on in the countless elected officials and county employees that she mentored over the years.
Murray graduated from the University of Michigan, where she met her husband. An opponent of the Vietnam war, she became active in the Democratic Party in the 1960s.
She taught English and speech at Pioneer High School, where friends recall she coached the debate team so well that they went all the way to the state championship.
Tom Murray said his wife was grateful to have lived a long and fulfilling life and accepted death with grace and dignity. He recalled that one of her last interactions with her grandchildren was to explain to them her feelings about death and that it was a natural part of life.
At her request, there won't be a funeral service, but friends and family are planning a celebration of her life. Details are being finalized.
Murray asked that in lieu of flowers, any gifts in her memory be sent to the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission.