Friends recall Murray as a man who ‘never gave up’
ST. CLAIRSVILLE — He never gave up — that’s what many people who knew the late Robert E. “Bob” Murray said about him Monday as they reflected on his life.
Murray died early Sunday at his St. Clairsville home, surrounded by his family. He was 80.
The man who would eventually own the largest independent coal company in the United States was born in Bethesda in 1940. Murray started mowing lawns to raise money for his family after his father, who worked in a deep mine, suffered a life-changing injury.
At age 17, Murray followed in his father’s footsteps and went to work in a coal mine before he graduated from Bethesda High School. He later obtained a bachelor’s degree from Ohio State University and went to work underground for North American Coal Corp. He became president and CEO of that company in 1983.
Five years later, Murray founded Murray Energy Corp., which grew to employ thousands at its mines in Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Utah, Pennsylvania and Alabama.
The St. Clairsville-based company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection a year ago, and emerged from bankruptcy as American Consolidated Natural Resources Inc. in September. Murray was ACNR’s first board chairman, but he announced on Oct. 19 that he was retiring from that position.
Murray’s determination — both personally and professionally — was a characteristic that many of his friends and acquaintances admired.
Marty Lucas, former mayor of Bethesda, made the difficult decision in 2010 to have the village clock dedicated to World War I veterans removed from its tower atop the downtown Orrison building, because its weight threatened to cause a roof collapse. Although it had chimed in the center of the community for 90 years, Lucas feared it would be stored away and never play a role in village life again.
But Murray and his wife, Brenda, were determined that would not be the case.
Within about eight months after Murray decided to tackle the project it was complete. The clock had been refurbished and installed in a new tower that stands next to the municipal building at what is known as Murray Family Memorial Plaza.
In addition to that project, Lucas said Murray completely renovated the Hazen Masonic Lodge in the village at his own expense; paved roads within Epworth Park; provided assistance to Bethesda United Methodist Church; and, most recently, funded renovations at Bethesda Senior Center.
“He’s done so much over the years,” Lucas said. “Who knows about how many things he did for individuals? He was in a position to be able to help and do good.
“Over the years of dealing with him, the thing that struck me the most was the determination he had. It was just unbelievable. He wanted things done and he wanted them done right. … He knew what needed to happen, how to make it happen, and he always surrounded himself with the right people to make it happen.”
Lucas was employed by Murray at one time and said he also was amazed that despite having thousands of employees, Murray knew and greeted each of his workers by name when hosting events that they attended.
Joel Braido is a lifelong Bethesda resident and businessman. He became acquainted with Murray as a child, when he delivered newspapers to Murray’s parents.
“He admired a young kid who had a work ethic, and we struck up a friendship … ,” Braido said. “He did a lot of things people aren’t even aware of.”
Braido said Murray purchased one of the historic cottages at Epworth Park and immediately funded renovation of the park’s amphitheater.
“He just embraced the park and tried to leave it better than he found it,” Braido said, noting that Brenda Murray still owns a cottage there. “Bethesda has been the beneficiary of their kindness many, many times. … There is no end to their philanthropy in our community.”
Braido said Murray “impressed me as a modern-day Andrew Carnegie or Rockefeller.” At 80 years old, he said, Murray continued to work 12- and 14-hour days until shortly before his death.
“He was an amazing man — his work ethic and the empire he was able to create, not for his good but for the good of mankind. He took the path of making the world a better place at his expense.”
Irene Schafer Simeral is active with the Bethesda High School Alumni Association. She said that several years ago, Murray agreed to take over the group’s annual banquet. He rented costumes so that several members could portray former teachers and had a video created for the members to enjoy.
“Bob was our largest contributor to the Bethesda Alumni Association and we will miss him greatly,” she said. “It just will not be the same. God bless Bob, Brenda and his family.”
Murray also was known for contributing to construction of the Ickes Family Life Center at East Richland Evangelical Friends Church as well as to Ohio Cancer Research Associates, Boy Scouts of America and the West Virginia University Research Trust Fund.
St. Clairsville attorney Michael Shaheen has handled a variety of legal matters for Murray, but he also has considered him a friend for about 20 years.
“It’s a very sad day, not just for the Ohio Valley, but for coal miners all across the country,” Shaheen said. “He was a trend-setter, iconic in his field, and certainly unique personally and professionally. He was very passionate about those he cared for and what he believed in.”
Shaheen said Murray’s influence on the economy of the Ohio Valley was “immeasurable” and that Murray “took the most pride in knowing he was feeding families.”
Shaheen described Murray as “very committed to higher education,” “unabashedly Christian” and “loyal to a fault.”
“He was blessed with a wonderful wife who stood by his side,” Shaheen continued. “I feel blessed that my wife and I had the opportunity to become so close to them, get to know them on a personal level.”
Shaheen, who announced Murray’s death on Sunday, echoed Braido in pointing out that Murray maintained regular working hours until a few days ago: “He fought to the bitter end to maintain his professional presence, his dignity and he never gave up.”
Several state and federal officials also expressed their sympathy upon hearing of Murray’s death.
U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson shared a message online.
“Very saddened to hear of the passing of my friend, Bob Murray. He was a true conservative patriot who believed deeply in the greatness of America,” Johnson posted. “But, he was also a tireless fighter for the coal industry and coal jobs right up until the very end. He got his own start as a miner, and he never forgot it … he cared deeply about those who worked for him. Mr. Murray’s companies were the lifeblood of many communities in Eastern Ohio, West Virginia, and elsewhere throughout America. He was an American original. RIP, my friend.”
U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., expressed similar sentiment with a tweet.
“Saddened to learn of the passing of Bob Murray,” she shared. “He was a staunch ally for coal miners, a good friend, and a one of a kind person.”
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine also released a brief statement.
“Bob fought through his medical challenges with the same energy, drive, guts, and faith in God as he approached everything in life,” the Republican wrote, noting that Murray had been his friend for three decades.
Murray recently had applied for federal black lung benefits after he said testing at multiple hospitals diagnosed him with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis — an illness that includes inflammation of the lungs and shortness of breath. He said at least one doctor had suggested he might have black lung.
Murray, who had relied on supplemental oxygen for a few years, said he believed his ailment stemmed from his time working as an underground coal miner.
Shaheen said Murray’s death was a result of that illness.