Isaac Taylor (Ike) Murry (1913–1990)
Isaac Taylor (Ike) Murry was a lawyer and politician whose surging career before, during, and after World War II climaxed in a historic confrontation with Governor Sid McMath. Murry was the state’s attorney general who in 1952 led an effort to prosecute McMath or his aides for corruption and mismanagement in the state highway program. McMath tried twice to resurrect his career, losing both times, and the brutal investigation and election ended Murry’s political career as well as McMath’s.
Ike Murry was born on May 8, 1913, in Fordyce (Dallas County), the youngest of six children of Isaac Taylor Murry and Addie Pearl Harris Murry. Robust and handsome, Murry was the center and defensive tackle of the Fordyce High School Redbugs football team, which beat Little Rock High School and won the state championship his senior year, 1929. A lifelong friend and teammate was Paul “Bear” Bryant of nearby Moro Bottoms, who would become a legendary college coach at the University of Alabama. Bryant would return to Arkansas in 1952 to campaign for his old teammate.
Although Murry’s father tried farming, he was unsuccessful and, like others in the Murry clan, became a merchant. He ran a grocery store, where the young Murry worked in the evenings after school and on Saturday, often driving the store’s delivery wagon. After high school, he was waiting tables in a brother’s cafe at Fordyce when J. T. Richardson, a lawyer and a former county judge, dropped in for lunch. Murry told him he would like to be a lawyer someday, and Richardson invited him to study law—“reading” law, the common-law practice of legal training in those days—in Richardson’s office, down the street from the restaurant. Murry said Richardson had plenty of time to tutor him because there was so little legal work during the Great Depression.
After he was admitted to the bar, Murry married his high school girlfriend, Catherine Samuels, and joined Richardson’s law practice while also working as the night clerk at the Kilgore Hotel down the street. He served two years as a deputy prosecuting attorney, and, in 1935, state Representative W. M. Caraway got Murry a job as the reading clerk in the Arkansas House of Representatives for the 1935 session. Murry then won Caraway’s seat in the House in 1936. He would serve three terms.
Murry was always proud to have been the co-author, in 1939, of Arkansas’s workers’ compensation law, which guaranteed automatic, prompt benefits to people who are injured or killed on the job (or their families). Arkansas was one of the last states in the country to provide workers’ insurance. His six years in the legislature established Murry as the best-dressed and best-coiffed man in the assembly. A reporter wrote that Murry read fashion magazines, never wore the same suit on successive days, and never had a hair out of place. Murry said he followed the wisdom of Will Rogers, who said that “if a man has a brown suit and a blue suit he can go anywhere.” Murry always kept a suit of each hue.
During World War II, Murry enlisted in the U.S. Navy for twenty-eight months of duty. Guy Williams, who was elected attorney general in 1942, hired Murry as his chief deputy, and when Williams ran for and was elected chancery judge in 1948, Murry ran for attorney general and was elected. He was reelected in 1950 without opposition.
As it was with four other ambitious young politicians, the pinnacle of Murry’s career was the 1952 Democratic contest for governor, the transformative race of modern Arkansas politics. McMath, the World War II war hero and an unabashed liberal, ran for a third term. He had angered the most powerful man in the state, C. Hamilton Moses, president of Arkansas Power and Light Company, by persuading the administration of President Harry S. Truman to lend money to the Arkansas Electric Cooperatives to build a hydroelectric dam on the Arkansas River, which Moses considered an unfair government-backed competitor of his investor-owned utility.
McMath’s account always was that Moses arranged for the most electable young men in each part of the state—Murry from southern Arkansas, Chancery Judge Francis Cherry from northeastern Arkansas, former attorney general Jack Holt Sr. from northwestern Arkansas, and Congressman Boyd Tackett of southwestern Arkansas—to run and siphon votes from McMath. It was the first political campaign in which television began to play a role. Every candidate had a fresh gimmick. Tackett flew around the state in a helicopter, dropping down dramatically from the sky wherever political speeches were scheduled. Murry brought in stars from the Grand Ole Opry to gin up crowds. Holt counted on his legendary oratorical skills and statewide political connections from previous races for governor, attorney general, and the U.S. Senate. Cherry held radio talk-a-thons, in which he sat for hours at a time in front of radio microphones answering questions called in by listeners.
Murry began the campaign as the heavy favorite among the challengers owing to his role in building the “McMath Highway Scandal.” Moses and his allies had demanded an investigation of the Highway Department, which had built hundreds of miles of paved roads and new bridges under McMath’s highway program. A special audit commission was appointed, and the attorney general led the investigation. The audit uncovered some political favoritism in roadbuilding plans and contracting—a feature of every roadbuilding program in history going back to Reconstruction. In the Audit Commission’s hearings and in two grand juries, Murry sought to link McMath and his executive secretary, Henry Woods (future U.S. district judge), to the scheming. Neither McMath nor Woods was ever indicted or linked conclusively to wrongdoing, but the yearlong controversy shattered McMath’s heroic image. He led the ticket, but barely ahead of Cherry, who then won the runoff handily. Murry, Holt, and Tackett gathered at Jonesboro (Craighead County) after the primary to jointly announce their support of Cherry in the runoff. Cherry would be upset two years later by McMath’s former assistant, Orval E. Faubus.
Murry, however, suffered the greatest disappointment. Although his reputation remained unsullied, he was a distant fifth in the voting—only 28,000 votes out of 329,000 that were cast. At the age of thirty-nine, he decided his poor showing meant that he had no political future. He never participated in another campaign. He would run a famous straw poll, called “the popcorn poll,” that predicted the outcome of major elections almost unerringly. He became a fixture at the downtown lunches at the table of W. R. “Witt” Stephens, the gas and investment-banking baron who was once the major benefactor of McMath. Henry Woods, who was Murry’s quarry in the highway investigations, was a regular companion. They joked about the old times, and Murry joshed that there never was much to the highway scandal but politics.
In 1967, he opened the Olde West Dinner Theatre at Asher and University avenues in Little Rock (Pulaski County), which played to packed houses—some 300,000 patrons a year. It eventually became Murry’s Dinner Theatre and finally Murry’s Dinner Playhouse.
In the early 1970s, Murry invested in the pizza phenomenon and owned much of the Shakey’s Pizza Parlor market; he later sold his interest for a sizable fortune.
Murry died on May 7, 1990. He is buried in Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock.
For additional information:
Donald, Leroy. “‘Ike’ Murry, Former Attorney General and Theater Owner, Dies.” Arkansas Gazette, December 10, 1990, p.1B, 2B.
McMath, Sidney Sanders. Promises Kept. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, 2003.
Williams, Fay. Arkansans of the Years. Little Rock: C. C. Allard & Associates, 1951.
Little Rock, Arkansas
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Ike Murry was my great-uncle. His sister, Marjorie, was my grandmother. I learned some new things about him today. I would love to learn more.