Former Monroe County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy was instrumental in brokering a deal for Rowell’s Park in Key Largo. She also played a pivotal role in saving lives during her career as an EMT.
A Keys resident dating back to her late teenage years, Murphy passed away during the morning hours of Nov. 26. She was 86.
Feisty, a walking history book and a true public servant, Murphy served 14 years as a county commissioner. But she was also a contributor to the community in ways many people didn’t see. A few weeks before the 13th annual Light Up Key Largo on Nov. 19, Murphy called Nola Acker, one of the event organizers. The two have known each other for many years. Murphy appointed Acker to serve on the Tourist Development Council’s District Advisory Committee in 2017.
Murphy was a regular contributor to Key Largo’s holiday event and donated funds so every kid could enjoy a hot dog and a drink. Acker told Murphy they were having some difficulties obtaining everything they needed for the event. Murphy stepped up without hesitation to help fill the holes in order to make the night magical.
“It was a two-hour conversation that night,” Acker said. “She was so excited when I talked to her three weeks ago. She’s like, ‘Nola I’ll give you $1,000; $250 to the kids and take the difference and put it where you need to put it.’”
Murphy spent much of her life serving the public, between her years as an EMT with Monroe County Emergency Medical Services, from which she retired in 1996, and two decades with the Tavernier Volunteer Fire Department. She was elected to represent Monroe County Commission’s District 5, which serves North Key Largo and portions of Tavernier, in 2006. She kept serving and running for reelection in the years that followed, until she decided to retire in November 2020.
“At 86, was I going to be a county commissioner at 90? Come on,” Murphy said during a sitdown interview with the Keys Weekly in December 2021.
County Commissioner Michelle Lincoln served two years with Murphy. But her time getting to know Murphy dates back to Lincoln’s days on the Marathon City Council.
“The first time I met her professionally, she said, ‘I’m going to give you some advice. You’re going to make some votes that won’t always make you popular. But do your homework, make your vote and move on to the next one.’ I loved that advice she had for me,” Lincoln said.
Murphy’s commitment to the job and Florida Keys residents was recognized by fellow commissioners, as she was named mayor emeritus on Dec. 8, 2021. She joined Wilhelmina Harvey as the only two to have the title.
“Sylvia is very active out in the community,” County Commissioner David Rice said in a 2021 interview on Murphy’s recognition. “She truly seemed to enjoy her job. As a county commissioner, she ran up and down the Keys, going to everything. And you never have to question where Sylvia’s thoughts are, because they are at the tip of her tongue. And she would agree with that. I love Sylvia, and I think that she would appreciate the honor. It hasn’t been done that many times, so why not?”
Murphy told the Keys Weekly one of her proudest accomplishments was Key Largo’s Rowell’s Park at MM 104, bayside. She knew the owner of that land and was instrumental in brokering the deal.
“It doesn’t matter if the park sits vacant, it belongs to the county,” she said. “One day, after hurricanes pass and roads are raised, it will be a beautiful park. I arranged for Roman (county administrator Roman Gastesi) to meet with the owners of the marina with the price he quoted me. Roman met them for lunch and finalized it.”
State Attorney Dennis Ward was a close friend to Murphy. Describing her as frank, candid and a supporter of the county and its natural resources, Ward said Murphy was the ultimate public servant. He also said she was a walking history book.
“We used to travel together a lot to Key West for events. Every time you get into an area she’d tell a story when she was an EMT and the different calls she went on,” Ward said. “The history and knowledge of the community that she had was incredible. Things would come up and she would know what people were around at that period of time and the events.”
Acker will remember Murphy’s passion and feistiness.
“All I had to do was say ‘I have a problem,’ and she’d say, ‘Let me send an email,’” Acker said. “Every time I asked her for anything she helped. She even got into a dunk tank for me during a 4th of July picnic.”
An outpouring of social media posts followed in the hours and days after Murphy’s passing. Steve Torrence worked with Murphy on the county Health and Services Advisory Board. In a post, Torrence said Murphy was a tenacious spirit and had a wicked sense of humor.
“She said what she thought and thought what she said,” he wrote.
State Rep. Jim Mooney said Murphy was a lifelong public servant and truly loved the island chain.
“The Keys lost a fruitful part of the community,” he said.
A celebration of life for Murphy will be held Dec. 19 at 3 p.m. at the Murray Nelson Government Center.