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To the Moon and Back

Love for SLUH Inspires $3.6 Million Estate Gift
from Kathleen and Bill Murphy ‘56

By Ben DuMont ‘92

Neil Armstrong accomplished the impossible in 1966 when, after undertaking the first docking with another space vehicle on Gemini VIII, he miraculously overcame a thruster malfunction and near-fatal tumbling of the craft, effecting the first emergency landing of a crewed U.S. space mission with co-pilot David Scott.

Back on planet Earth, Bill Murphy ‘56 was among the Gemini project team members cheering: mission accomplished.


Murphy, like Armstrong, had learned how to overcome adversity, stay humble and maximize his potential throughout his life. He grew up in Holy Family Parish in south city. “We came from a modest background,” his sister Marie recalls. “Our dad was a hard-working man.”

Marie says her brother Bill was “very studious and loved learning. He was always trying out new things.” In eighth grade, he became interested in farming. Then he wanted to become a brother so he spent the summer after grade school in the monastery, but found it was not for him.

“When Bill arrived at SLUH he realized his brain needed more than digging potatoes,” says Marie. “He enjoyed taking Russian and became an excellent math student.” He liked recreational sports, as well as chess, badminton, fishing and hunting, but “academics was his passion.”

Bill Murphy (far left) as a young man.

He earned a scholarship at the University of Missouri-Rolla (now Missouri S&T) but unfortunately contracted polio the summer after high school graduation and was unable to attend. He enrolled at Saint Louis University (SLU) the following spring to be closer to home, but it was an excruciating journey to get there.

Unable to walk, he spent a lot of time in bed and sought treatment at St. Anthony’s Hospital in the polio ward. “The physical therapy was extremely painful. He saw the older patients giving up and knew they would never walk again. But Bill was determined,” Marie recalls emotionally. “He was determined to get back on his own two feet.”

With an unrelenting will, Bill overcame his physical ailment. He was able to pull himself up and move about on a leg brace before transitioning to crutches and then a cane. His father retrofitted their car so he could drive with his hands. It was difficult to get around the SLU campus, but he managed to do so. Fr. Paul Reinert, SJ, then the university president, visited Bill during his recovery. “That meant a lot to him,” says Marie.

After graduating from SLU with a B.S. in engineering in three-and-a-half years, Bill looked to his future with a renewed sense of independence and confidence: the sky was the limit.


At an early age, Bill was interested in numbers and equations and formulas – and particularly, how they worked to solve real-world problems. He begged his older sister to buy him a slide rule, a hand-operated mechanical calculator that has long been replaced by computers. After much persuasion, she relented, and the tool quickly became a prized possession he used throughout school and his career.

Dr. Bill Murphy ‘56 received a photograph of Gemini VI signed by crew members Wally Schirra and Thomas Stafford for his contributions as a Gemini project team member.

Bill went on to earn an M.A. in engineering at SLU and a D.Sc. from Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL). Following school, he began a distinguished career at McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing), where he was hired as an electrical engineer and subsequently held such positions as Director of Avionics Technology and Director of Programs, Independent Analysis. He made significant contributions to the Gemini Project and F-15 Eagle on their core teams, and he served as Director of Program Analysis and Investigation for the F-18 Hornet.

“He knew so much about everything,” says Marie.

Her husband, Joe Laski, a retired senior development engineer, concurs: “Bill was the smartest guy I knew.”

Among many professional honors and affiliations, Bill became a leading expert in avionics and was invited to join the NATO Advisory Group for Aerospace Research and Development as a member and lecturer.

Bill, however, wanted something beyond a successful career. He sought to share his vast knowledge with others. While he worked at McDonnell Douglas during the day, he began to teach math classes during the evening at the WUSTL School of Engineering and Applied Science. According to Marie, he even developed new math courses at the school.

“He was an excellent instructor who cared about his students,” says Marie.

In 1993, WUSTL honored Dr. Bill Murphy with a prestigious alumni award for his exceptional work in the fields of aviation, engineering and education. At the end of Bill’s career, he held two patents and was the author of 18 publications.


One of Bill’s favorite songs, according to Marie, was I Made It Through the Rain by Barry Manilow. In the chorus, Manilow sings:

  I made it through the rain, I kept my world protected.

  I made it through the rain, I kept my point of view.

  I made it through the rain and found myself respected

  By the others who got rained on too and made it through.

Similar to the song, Bill overcame difficult obstacles to achieve remarkable success – and respect – yet he always remained true to who he was: a man of faith, values, humility and heart.

According to Marie, her brother “lived modestly and conservatively.” She says he served as his own financial consultant, making shrewd investments. In retirement, Bill enjoyed traveling with his wife, Kathy, attending Blues games and volunteering at the American Heart Association.

Bill and Kathleen Murphy portraits before their wedding.

Sadly, Bill suffered from post-polio syndrome in retirement and was on home dialysis the last seven years of his life. Kathy, a nurse with a 30-year career in the recovery room at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, cared for Bill and administered dialysis for him. When Bill passed away in 2012, the couple had been married for 50 years.

Kathy knew from the time they had their first date on the Admiral (long-retired boat on the St. Louis riverfront) how much SLUH meant to Bill. Before she died in 2019, Kathy named the school as the primary beneficiary of their estate so a scholarship could be created in Bill's memory. In December 2023, SLUH received a gift of $3.6 million. Similar to Anna Backer, who remembered her deceased husband (George 1869) by funding the creation of the current school campus in 1924, Kathy showed incredible love for her husband by honoring him with a thoughtful, generous gift to benefit future generations.

“Bill always felt strongly about SLUH," says Janet Mertensmeyer, Kathy’s sister. "He got the best education there.”

The legacy of Dr. Bill Murphy, a self-made man who was extraordinarily selfless, will long be remembered and celebrated with the establishment of the William J. Murphy '56 Presidential Scholarship. The scholarship will provide full tuition assistance to Jr. Bills in financial need each year in perpetuity.

Just as Bill had played an integral role in the Gemini project – quietly behind the scenes through his intellect and ingenuity – his magnanimous spirit will continue to serve as a foundation from which future students can launch their own mission as Men for Others in service For the Greater Glory of God.

To learn how you can create your legacy and impact future generations of Jr. Bills through a planned gift, visit