By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published October 10, 2013
ATLANTA—People with Down syndrome have a dedicated friend and advocate in Frank Murphy of St. Jude the Apostle Church, Sandy Springs, and, in turn, he considers them his “Down syndrome family.”
The Down Syndrome Association of Atlanta presented a Lifetime Achievement Award Sept. 19 to Murphy at its annual Buddy Breakfast.
Murphy and his late wife, Yvonne, have seven daughters. Their youngest daughter, Karen, was born July 4, 1976 with Down syndrome.
Friend Debbie Currere nominated Murphy for the honor. In her nomination, Currere wrote that after Karen’s birth, Murphy began serving with the National Down Syndrome Congress with a passion and commitment to learn more.
“He knew firsthand the importance of the need for families to understand and to celebrate individuals who just happened to have Down syndrome,” said Currere.
Raised in Louisville, Ky., Murphy graduated as a mechanical engineer from the University of Louisville and then worked for companies manufacturing industrial and large boiler controls. He then left the corporate world to start his own company, General Business Services, and started a plastics brokerage business, which he sold in 1978. That year, he was elected to the board of directors of the National Down Syndrome Congress.
Murphy served as a board member and officer of the congress for a number of years and then was asked to be the executive director. During his tenure from 1991 to 2002, he moved the national office from Chicago to Atlanta.
Janice Nodvin, a friend of the Murphy family for 34 years, said they were the first ones she went to see when her own son, Evan, was born with Down syndrome.
“He’s a pretty amazing guy,” said Nodvin of Murphy.
All along, Murphy has worked for inclusion of children with Down syndrome in education.
“He treated Karen just like he treated all his girls,” said Nodvin.
While executive director, Murphy worked for enactment of the national legislation known as the Education of the Handicapped Act (94-142) or IDEA. Nodvin said IDEA is the “cornerstone” of special education in this country.
Murphy also worked for reauthorization of the legislation extending coverage of students receiving special education. Previously it had been for ages 6 to 21 and was expanded to begin at the age of 3.
“Frank was certainly on the forefront of all of this,” said Nodvin.
During the time period when Karen Murphy and Evan Nodvin were born, parents of children with Down syndrome were still being encouraged to institutionalize them.
The Murphy and Nodvin families chose not to do that and instead focused on early intervention, which helps young people with Down syndrome reach milestones closer to that of a typical child.
Making regular trips to Washington, D.C., Murphy assisted the staff of senators and congressmen in teaching them about best practices for health and education for individuals with disabilities.
“We were not focused on ‘handouts.’ We just wanted to make sure our people received their legal and lawful position in the general population,” he said.
Another topic Murphy worked on while at the National Down Syndrome Congress was one referred to as “People First.” The project encouraged referring to those with the disability as a “person with Down syndrome” not a “Down syndrome person” as a way to emphasize the individual and not the disability.
“He became very passionate in support groups,” said Nodvin.
She said that Murphy inspired her to become a parent advocate as well.
In addition to direct support of families, Murphy was also involved in promoting research and in fundraising. He also served on an advisory committee of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
“He has balanced a whole lot of things,” said Nodvin.
Through Murphy’s efforts, approximately $1.5 million was raised and the NDSC Foundation was established in 1994. He served on the founding board and it remains strong, according to Currere.
While he was helping others with disabilities, he was also helping Karen to be “the best she can be,” said Nodvin.
Karen, now 37, lives at home with her father. She graduated from North Springs High School, has worked for Publix for 16 years and has participated in several stage plays of the Habima Theatre at the Jewish Community Center in Dunwoody.
Pat Tweed, fellow parishioner at St. Jude, was Karen’s religious education teacher and has known her since birth.
“She has so much of a life set up for her,” said Tweed.
Karen serves as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion during Masses for those with disabilities and also alongside her sister and father at other Masses.
Tweed said she is a big believer in everyone “partaking at the level you can” as Catholics.
Frank Murphy made sure his daughter could achieve, said Tweed. “I think he’s a wonderful man,” she said.
Frank and Karen Murphy and other family members attended the Buddy Breakfast of the Down Syndrome Association of Atlanta for the award presentation.
The DSAA will have its annual Buddy Walk Oct. 13 at Centennial Olympic Park and a golf tournament organized by its D.A.D.S. group Oct. 25 in Suwanee. For information on these events, or to support the work of the association, visit online at www.dsaatl.org.