More Philanthropy in Arizona’s Future, Says Former Flinn Foundation CEO

Posted By Mike Padgett

July 10, 2009

PHOENIX, Ariz. – John Murphy is hardly the hammock champ. He’s into heavy lifting, as in megabucks philanthropic ventures, so don’t expect him to slow down after retiring from 28 years as president and CEO of the Flinn Foundation in Phoenix.

Right now, before he rolls the dice for his next adventure, Murphy is thinking about a railroad vacation. Maybe in the Yukon.

When he was hired by the Flinn Foundation in 1981, Murphy discovered that Arizona had very few private foundations, and Flinn probably was the largest in the state. Today, more than a generation later, he estimates that of about 200 private foundations in Arizona, about a dozen have substantial assets. He also believes that in the near future, several more private foundations will become active in the state. Some, he says, will have their financial roots in chemicals and technology.

It was in late 2008 when Murphy announced his plans to retire in May 2009. His successor is Jack Jewett, former vice president for University Advancement at California State University-Monterey Bay. Jewett also was a five-term member of the Arizona House of Representatives and a former president of the Arizona Board of Regents.

Murphy’s retirement announcement made him a hot property among executive headhunters. But he plans to relax with his family before he decides which offer could become his next career adventure.

Murphy hopes to take at least one train vacation this summer. He grew up on trains in the East, where his father was a conductor on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, later renamed the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. He’s thinking about riding the White Pass & Yukon Route, a railroad built in 1898 during the Klondike gold rush.

Foundation assets

When Murphy was hired by Dr. Robert Flinn to run his private foundation in 1981, the foundation’s assets totaled less than $2 million. In 2007, the foundation had about $217 million. The foundation’s influence in Arizona over that same time period – in terms of dollars as well as in human benefits – would be difficult to calculate.

A few weeks ago, I contacted Murphy. I let him know I wanted to write about his work for the cardiologist-turned-philanthropist who arrived in Arizona in 1903, when the state was still a territory. Robert Flinn, at that time, was a boy. He died in 1984, three years after he hired Murphy.

Murphy asked where we could meet. I suggested the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa. Clocks tick slower in the peaceful ambiance of the historic hotel, despite its location in the heart of metro Phoenix. In fact, our meeting of what seemed like a few minutes turned into an hour and a half.

We sat at a small table near a window in the hotel lobby. Murphy began by telling me that Robert and Irene Flinn once lived within walking distance of where we sat. They lived in the Biltmore Estates.

Murphy says meeting at the Biltmore to talk about the Flinns and their foundation “is a symbolic gesture because he was so much a part of the Biltmore.” He says that when Biltmore officials learned customer Flinn had been educated as a doctor at Harvard, “he became the house physician.” That role put Flinn in touch with many of the historic hotel’s celebrity guests. In some cases, those contacts led to lifetime associations.

President Reagan’s in-laws

It was at their home where Murphy, who then was with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, first met Flinn. It was in about 1980. It was during that meeting in Flinn’s Biltmore Estates home that Murphy learned the next-door neighbors were Dr. Loyal Davis, a neurosurgeon, and his wife Edith, a stage actress. They were the in-laws of President Ronald Reagan.

“In fact, Mrs. Davis came over and borrowed a cup of sugar while I was visiting Dr. Flinn, I kid you not,” Murphy says.

Murphy soon accepted Flinn’s offer. He joined the Flinn Foundation in 1981, becoming its first staff member. The Flinns had run their philanthropic organization since starting it in 1965. Mrs. Flinn died in 1978 at the age of 78.

Three years after Murphy became foundation director, Flinn died at his Biltmore Estates home. He was 87. The day before, according to a July 23, 1984, report in The Prescott Courier, Flinn helped dedicate the Flinn Education Center at Yavapai Community Hospital in Prescott.

Prescott was where Flinn’s father, Dr. John Flinn, in 1907 started a tuberculosis treatment center. The elder Flinn, according to the Prescott newspaper, had moved his family to Kingman in 1903 from Canada. The family moved a few years later to Prescott. The Arizona Territory was granted statehood by Congress in 1912.

High-profile friends

Murphy says it was after Flinn’s death, when he received boxes of papers and records from the family attorney, that he learned more about the Flinns. They shared a love of horses. Flinn knew members of the Royal Family in England, writer Ernest Hemingway, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Murphy says Flinn played tennis with actor Spencer Tracy at the Arizona Biltmore.

“When he (Flinn) died, the attorney who was handling the estate called me one day and he said, ‘We’ve got all these papers and documents and books from Dr. Flinn. Do you want them?’

“I said, ‘Well, if they’re personal papers, don’t burn them. Yeah, I’d like to see them.’ So he says, ‘Well, I’ll send them over.’

“Well, a truck arrives one day with all these boxes,” Murphy says, laughing. “I just assumed it would be a couple of boxes. In time, we finally got to take a look at some of the boxes and see what was there.”

The boxes included scrapbooks of newspaper clippings about the Flinns’ interest in horses. They also included notes or letters from Hemingway, Wright, and Hoover. Flinn’s personal papers also showed that he knew the publisher-editor team of Henry and Clare Booth Luce.

“Dr. Flinn talked about a few of them with me,” Murphy says, “but mostly I found out more about that after we got the correspondence and things from his files. He was a very modest fellow that way.”

Murphy added that both Flinns had earlier marriages. From those marriages Mrs. Flinn had two children and Flinn had one child.

The Flinns’ achievements

According to the Flinn Foundation Web site, Flinn headed the departments of cardiography and electrocardiography at St. Joseph’s Hospital & Medical Center in Phoenix. He was chief of medical staff at St. Joseph’s and at Phoenix Memorial Hospital; president of the Arizona and Maricopa County medical societies; and co-founder and first president of the American Heart Association’s Arizona affiliate.

Murphy also learned that the Flinns often donated their private funds – not the Foundation’s – anonymously to Arizona students in the mathematics, science or medical fields.

“This year, I got a letter totally out of the blue from a nursing faculty member at NAU (Northern Arizona University),” Murphy says.

The letter was a thank-you note. The university faculty member wrote to express appreciation for the scholarships she and her husband received years ago from the Flinns.

“We (at the Foundation) didn’t do it,” Murphy says. “It was the Flinns. How they chose the students, it isn’t clear to me. They were very low profile people.”

Murphy suspects their anonymity was partly because the Flinns had been robbed at their luxury home twice.

Murphy’s background

I asked Murphy about his own background. He was recruited in the 1970s by another philanthropic organization, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, where he was working when he was invited to join Flinn. Intrigued by the offer from Flinn, he turned for advice to a friend, Dr. Walsh McDermott, also at the Johnson Foundation. McDermott had headed a tuberculosis research project, from 1952-62, on the Navajo Reservation in northeastern Arizona. McDermott then was at Weill Cornell Medical College at Cornell University.

“I knew that Walsh knew a lot about Arizona. And I went to visit with him and I said, ‘I’m pondering whether I should even consider going out there or not. These good people have made me a splendid offer and I’m really debating that.’”

McDermott briefed Murphy on what he knew about Arizona. Murphy enjoyed his work at Johnson, where he had major responsibilities. But the offer from Flinn was inviting because, at Johnson, he was spending three weeks a month traveling.

“So that (offer from Flinn) kind of gave me pause because, you know, this may be a chance where I could plant roots down, even though it was a smaller base,” Murphy says.

During his work at Flinn Foundation, the organization had a role in several key issues affecting many Arizonans. One was the state’s adoption of its Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, or AHCCCS. He says it has become a model studied by other states. Another major issue was working with Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, the Arizona Board of Regents, university leaders and many others in setting up the new medical school in downtown Phoenix. And a third was adoption of Arizona’s bioscience roadmap.

Private-public partnerships

“That’s how I see foundations being a partner with public agencies,” Murphy says. “In that particular case, it was the city of Phoenix as well as the state. And I think we were probably well positioned as a foundation that’s done a lot in the health care field and knew hospital leaderships quite well. We understand those issues.”

“The foundation was able to play a quiet role in partnership with government and business in a way to say, ‘Here are some things that you can be doing, and we’ll help you try to get there,’” he says.

One of Murphy’s fans is Joan Rankin Shapiro, vice president of clinical research at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. She says Murphy, like the Flinns, has “extraordinary vision as to what is needed to enhance the community at large.”

She adds that the Flinns “had the foresight to provide a financial resource that would advance Arizona when the need was there.”

“John Murphy using that resource placed an emphasis on students and keeping the best and the brightest in Arizona and in developing a biomedical presence,” Shapiro says.

“He promoted or enriched programs that would enable Arizona to advance those young men and women with intellect and creativity to succeed through the Flinn Scholars Program,” she says.

Murphy also was “a leader in recruiting and supporting the Translational Genomics Research Institute, which clearly established an important biomedical anchor for this state,” she says.

Shapiro says Murphy is responsible for many other important achievements that benefit the state. One is a student enrichment program allowing medical students to work with mentors. Shapiro submitted a request to Flinn Foundation for a grant, and it was approved.

The program, now in its 20th year, has been adapted by other institutions “so that many more young men and women can share in such an experience,” Shapiro says.

Flinn recruited physicians

Murphy adds that yet another of Flinn’s achievements was recruiting top physicians from other states to move to Arizona. They include Dr. Ted Dietrich of the Arizona Heart Institute. “A lot of practioners here today – some still living and active – all owe to Dr. Flinn the fact that he was the magnet that brought them here,” Murphy says.

Murphy, like others, is disappointed at efforts by fiscal conservatives to reduce state support for the bioscience community. If Arizona is to make its economy more resilient, it is in the bioscience sector, Murphy says.

He adds that Arizona soon could overcome one of its limitations – the absence of a federal lab, like those found in several other states.

Murphy says that while Arizona has “an opportunity to get one very soon,” Maryland is competing for the same lab. Its proposed location in Arizona is the Tucson area. Murphy says it would be a diagnostics lab affiliated with the Food & Drug Administation.

If he could have an audience with fiscal conservatives in Arizona opposing public support of the bioscience industry, Murphy says he would talk about the importance of the industry to the state’s future.

“I would begin by saying that there’s enormous promise that this is what’s going to drive the 21st Century economy,” Murphy says. “It’s the biosciences and breakthroughs.

“And secondly, you cannot do that without a public sector base, and that public sector base is in the form of providing opportunities, investment opportunities, for new startup firms.”

Optimistic, despite opposition

“Our economy and our tax structure, as I understand it, does not favor startups. It favors an extraction economy, one based on agriculture and mining. We need to change that, and we need to give more favorable treatment to startups. What’s happening is, the startup firms that we have had, and successful ones, have all been moving to Seattle and San Diego and elsewhere. The rights are being bought out. That’s what’s happening.

“It’s a hard statement to make to (bioscience opponents) because they still believe firmly that the private sector can do all of it. I think history has shown in the technology areas that government has to play a few strategic roles such as in a more favorable tax structure, strategic investments and venture capital, that kind of thing.”

Despite the opposition from fiscal conservatives in supporting the biosciences, Murphy remains optimistic.

“There is every reason to believe,” he says, “that within the next five years, Arizona will be within the top 10 or 15 states or (metropolitan) regions, in terms of competitive positions in science. We’re well poised right now.”

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Jul 10th, 2009

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