Just-do-you Profiles Dr. Keith Murphy

September 7, 2011 – Wildcat students know Dr. Keith Murphy, interim dean for the College of Arts and Sciences, is one of Fort Valley State University’s most fascinating administrators. When the former professor taught in the College of Arts and Sciences, a great sense of humor, a passion for comic books and the ability to make learning interesting and fun were his trademarks. Murphy’s career goes beyond the world of academia; he’s performed on stage as a standup comedian, magician and mentalist.

In this week’s “Just Do You” column, marketing and communications’ writer, Christina Milton, interviewed the Renaissance man about the interesting jobs he held pre-FVSU.

When did you start working at FVSU?
I began working here August 1995, and was hired to be a director of forensics and assistant professor of English.

You’ve had some interesting jobs in the past. What were they?

I worked as a disc jockey. I was a news and sports director for radio stations. I did play-by-play for high school and college football and basketball. I worked as a journalist for several newspapers and have done web design. I’ve also done theatre.

I was the lead screamer for a punk band. I also taught communications in prison. I was expected to counsel prisoners about their life skills, and eventually got really good at that. I’ve also married a bunch of people as a minister for the Universal Life Church. I was a cave guide and snake wrangler for the Kentucky Park Systems for 18 months.

I’ve written in total more than 100 articles and chapters for reference books on subjects ranging from terror to military history to comic books.

What was one of your most memorable jobs?
I did standup comedy. I worked the Comedy Caravan Circuit on and off for three years. It didn’t pay well, and we stayed at some crappy hotels, but it was fun.

Did you have any hecklers?
I was usually quick-witted and smart enough to stop most hecklers.

What other acts did you perform?
I did stage magic and mentalism (cold readings of audience members).

A favorite trick for me to do was cold reading, where we debunked psychics. I was good at cold readings. I would use the psychic’s patois (the language used by most mentalists). We’d work big rooms, telling the audience that I was getting messages from their dead relatives. Our group didn’t tell audience members that we ran their license plates, read the hotel’s front registry, or we had others strike up conversations with guests before the show started. At the end, we’d have the crowds eating out of our hands. By the end, we always admitted that we played a trick on them; but most people only listened to what they wanted to hear.

After the performance, I’d have one or two people (who watched the show) offering me money, begging me to contact their Aunt Josie because they believed I was [psychic]. It was really sad.

Did you have jaw-dropping escapes?
We did a danger-filled escape where I was double handcuffed, manacled and put in a dumpster liner (giant garbage bag). The bag was duct taped and sealed by a member of the audience, then they signed their autograph on top of the seal. I was put into a box, which was set on fire. I had maybe 45 seconds of air in the box. We played a funky song from the 1920s on a turntable for 1:45 seconds.

We had two young men in suits (which were our version of the scantily-clad women in magic shows). One would hold the rope (holding up the cabinet’s curtain), and the little man would run to the back of the room to grab a big fire extinguisher (usually bigger than he was). He would then drag it back through the audience to the stage. The music would get more intense around 45 seconds. My partner would say, “Now he’s out of air! We don’t know what to do, he’s always come out by now!” Billows of smoke would rise up (usually the scent of wild cherries and berries). The audience would get really weird at this point. An assistant would swing an axe at the cabinet, open it, and there I would appear, in a change of clothes, with an Australian Bush hat on, smoking on a Meerschaum Pipe. My manacles would be on one arm; the bag, sealed and unbroken, in the other hands for the audience members to re-inspect.

I also picked the pockets of people on stage and would steal neckties. Now, with my multiple sclerosis I can’t do it as much.

When were you diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis?
I was diagnosed in 2004, although I’ve been showing symptoms since 1985.

You have a passion for comic books?
I managed a comic book store, and I’ve written for comic books. I’ve also starred as a comic book character (more than once). I appeared a couple of times in the Grendeland Atlas series. I was killed-off violently in Grendel. By then, it got to be a running joke that a Dr. Murphy kept getting killed off in all of these stories. By then, I got into the college thing (teaching) full time.

You’ve taught comics courses here at the university?

Comic books are one of my major research areas and focuses. They’re one form of American literature that has some of the greatest impact on the moral structure of the country. Until the digital age, most people were enthralled by comics and there were introductions to a clear cut morality that they may not have been getting somewhere else. And in that way, comics have had a pretty profound impact in their short lifespan as part of American culture. Usually, I approach it from a critical theory aspect. It helps me to look at them from a literary, social and psychological aspect. Comics have their own language, and they combine three different symbol sets in a unique way to create a brand new form of communication.

You presented research at Oxford University a few years back? Why did they invite you?
Oxford sent a letter, asking me to come speak about personal privacy and the internet. I’ve written some reference works about the subject. Basically, people have no privacy [on the internet]. At the conference, I was one of 20 people asked from around the world to speak at the conference.

Oxford is an academic’s dream come true. You are in the center of all that is academia, and they have the world’s oldest English Library of which I’m now a member of for life. You’re in this room where they filmed different Harry Potter films, and sleeping in dorms and walking down parts of the quads used by faculty and upperclassmen for centuries. In order to join the library, you have to be recommended by someone who is currently a member, and they have to look at your research and see if it’s acceptable.

Tell me about your animal rescue operation?
I ran a rescue for birds and rabbits. I just saw an enormous need. There were these beings cast away and someone needed to step in and help them. How can someone not look hard, see them scared and suffering, and not see their need?

“Just Do You” is a periodic column that features profiles of FVSU staff, faculty and students. If you’d like to recommend the next JDY feature, contact Vickie Oldham at (478) 825-6319 or oldhamv@fvsu.edu.

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