When Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton needed his shoes shined, Larry E. Murphy, the governor's $44,000-a-year top aide, personally took the shoes to a local bootsmith. When Dalton was stranded in a snowstorm in his hometown of Radford, Murphy drove more than 400 miles in the snow to pick the governor up and return him to Richmond. And when Mrs. Dalton hungered for a latenight cheeseburger, Murphy sometimes would make the delivery.
Those were some of the ways that Larry Murphy helped make himself indispensable to the governor and earned a reputation for fiercely devoted loyalty. Last Saturday night, after Murphy had run his ex-fiance's car off a suburban county road in a fit of anger, friends believe he feared that word of his actions would reach the governor and deeply embarrass the man he was devoted to.
Friends say that fear, played against the courtly behavior expected of Virginia's top officials, may have prompted Murphy's suicide after he had seriously wounded his fiance.
"Larry was the guy the governor would turn to when there were loose cannons on the deck that needed tying," said one friend. "He must have known his career was over and that John Dalton would be hurt. That must have helped drive him to what he did."
Today, as Dalton and members of his staff struggled to carry on an appearance of normality in an office stunned by the death of the man who served as the governor's chief of staff and senior executive assistant, most said they had seen no indication that the 34-year-old Murphy was heading toward disaster. Many had lived in fear of Murphy's anger and his penchant for running a coldly efficient operation.
But others today said there had been subtle but significant indications that Larry Murphy was a man in trouble. There was the story, never denied, that Murphy had banned laughter from staff headquarters during Dalton's 1977 guberatorial campaign. He was also said to disapprove of staffers seen talking together in the halls of the State Capitol, saying it reflected badly on the image of efficiency.
Others recalled his obsession with security, ordering automatic locks on the governor's door that could only be opened by a buzz from Dalton's desk. When jewelry was stolen from the governor's mansion, Murphy approved lie detector tests for several employes, much to their resentment. He himself obtained a permit to carry a concealed handgun, citing "my position with the Commonwealth."
"Those were all small things that didn't mean much at the time," said one aide. "Larry was the kind of guy everybody here had to make allowances for."
The one man who appeared to have no reservations about Murphy was his boss, the governor, for whom Murphy served as, in the words of one state official, "watchdog and resident son-of-a-bitch."
Some of Dalton's supporters blamed Murphy for a number of negative but minor incidents that surfaced in the press, and held him responsible for an image of arrogance for which the Dalton administration has been attacked. When Dalton was criticized for allegedly extravagant use of his state-owned limousine, an incensed Murphy replied that the governor could ride in the auto "to a pig auction" if he wished.
But others say Murphy ultimately was doing what his employer wanted and had Dalton's approval for the substance, if not the style, of how he handled the staff and the public. And when Dalton had a special problem, for example when Mrs. Dalton was accused for overspending her budget for the Executive Mansion, the governor turned to Murphy to take charge. In that instance, Murphy took control of the budget and ordered cutbacks, much to Mrs. Dalton's dismay, friends say.
Some critics say Dalton and Murphy shared the same humorless and unimaginative approach to running the government. But no one was certain of the extent of Murphy's influence over his boss.
"Larry would usually sit there quiet as a sphinx while we all talked," said one frequent participant in gubernatorial meetings. "What he might have said to Dalton after we left no one ever knew."
Murphy's private life was also a cipher to most friends. After the hectic days of the governor's 1977 campaign, Murphy divorced his wife. A series of romances ensued, of which his engagement to Margaret Lynn Whitaker was the last. It was Whitaker's apparent attempt to break off the engagement last week that police suggest led to Saturday night's bizarre events.
Whitaker, shot three times at the home of her parents in suburban Richmond, was listed in "fair" condition tonight at a hospital here.
Friends say Dalton may have been unaware of personal problems of the man who served as his top assistant for six years. "The governor looked upon Larry as a functionary and Larry was a good one," said one friend of both men. "The governor is also susceptible to people who accommodate themselves to him a lot. Larry was very accommodating."
Dalton, who yesterday said he was "shocked and saddened" at Murphy's death, had no further comment today. He quickly named an executive assistant, Jennifer Joy Manson, to take Murphy's job and announced the appointment at a brief staff meeting this afternoon.
Dalton led the staff in a moment of silent prayer for Murphy but otherwise there was no mention of his former aide. Dalton also announced that the office will be closed Wednesday and that we will serve as a pallbearer at Murphy's funeral, scheduled for that day in New Bern, N.C., where Murphy was born and reared. A number of other state officials, including Attorney George J. Marshall Coleman, also will be pallbearers.
Manson said it will take several weeks for her to adjust to the new job, but plans no major changes. She said she expects to continue Murphy's longstanding policy of limiting press access to Dalton.
The governor's staff made an attempt today to conduct business as usual. Dalton met each of his scheduled appointments, all of which had been set up by Murphy as part of his job as the governor's gatekeeper. Any emotion by the governor was well hidden.
"He's been the strength that has helped us all get through this," said Manson.