Doug Moe on John Shabaz and Rick Murphy

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Posted by Chris on September 09, 2012 at 09:25:30:

Two well-known Madisonians of my acquaintance died last week while I was away. They died on the same day, and they couldn't have been more different.

I interviewed John Shabaz and Rick Murphy for newspaper columns and magazine stories over the years, and I saw both up close in their very separate arenas. I was a guest on Murphy's radio show, and I testified in Shabaz's courtroom.

I always saw some Bobby Knight in Shabaz, the Republican legislator who was appointed U.S. District judge by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Like the legendary basketball coach, Shabaz could be combative and compassionate by turn. He was called brilliant, and he was called brusque.

A few years after he became a federal judge, I wrote asking for an interview. I wanted to profile him for Madison Magazine. In the Fess bar, my lawyer friends were telling wide-eyed stories about Shabaz. He moved cases through his courtroom at a pace that took your breath away, and the severity of his sentencing could be breathtaking, too.

Question: What do you tell a defendant being sentenced in Shabaz's court?

Answer: Bring your toothbrush.

When he received my interview request, Shabaz refused it with a two sentence reply. Still, I kept at it. I interviewed people around him. Then one day the phone rang. It was Shabaz. "I've reconsidered," he said.

I don't recall a great deal from that interview, but I remember him showing me a piece of paper out of his desk. It had three words written on it: patience, understanding and compassion. Shabaz called it a reminder. "I sometimes don't remember it as well as I should," he said.

Certainly those on the receiving end of Shabaz's draconian sentences would agree, as would the lawyers who were occasionally humiliated in front of their clients in his court.

And yet. I saw another side of Shabaz in 2000 when I took my Russian friend Rita Kozmits to Shabaz's courtroom where she was one of 58 people taking the oath of United States citizenship.

Shabaz's eyes sparkled when he saw Rita. He remembered performing the ceremony a decade earlier when Rita's daughter Elina married Nick Fuhrman.

On the citizenship day, he asked if any in the group had come from Iran. One man raised his hand. "My grandfather came over from Iran in the early 1900s," Shabaz said.

In spring 2001, I was called as a witness in an age discrimination lawsuit brought against the UW Press by four terminated employees. I had published a book with the Press, and was writing another. Shabaz, who was presiding, later told an attorney he wasn't much impressed by my testimony. He impressed me that day, though. There was no doubt who was in charge.

Rick Murphy behind the microphone was much more benevolent. He was from Milwaukee but knew Madison as well as anybody. I first talked to Rick for a column in 1998. He already had been on the air in Madison for 30 years.

Murphy arrived at UW-Madison to study engineering, which lasted until he discovered engineering required calculus. Maybe he was destined for radio all along. His voice seemed minted for the medium, and early on he fell under the spell of Madison writer and radio host George Vukelich, whose Papa Hambone show on WIBA was carried by a Milwaukee station.

Murphy met his hero in the halls of WIBA, where in 1969 Rick helped launch "Radio Free Madison" on WIBA-FM. Fred Gage had never known what to do with his FM station. Murphy built a library of 6,000 albums and a loyal following of night owls who appreciated the anti-Top 40 concept. Two decades after that first run ended, Murphy brought it back on WMMM-FM.

Later still, he did a weekend talk show on WIBA-AM on which I appeared several times. I think Rick invited me when he couldn't think of anyone else to have on. We talked about Mike Royko and the Billy Goat Tavern. At the breaks, Rick went outside for a smoke. He wanted me to see his one man Will Rogers show. I wish I had.

Rick Murphy, 63, and John Shabaz, 81, died last Friday. Driving back from Michigan last weekend after hearing the news — our ferry was canceled by a mechanical issue — I thought about the two men and found myself wondering if their paths ever crossed. I doubt it, but in Madison, you never know.

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