Whether in the workplace, at the scene of a fire or on an ambulance call, Paul Murdoch was a man who stood tall. With his 6 foot, 7 inch frame, it was true not only in stature, but also in the way he was regarded by his peers and those who knew him best.
“I don’t think there was a better man in Greybull, and I can tell you for certain that there is no one I respected more than Paul,” said Del Atwood, the longtime Big Horn County coroner and the man who decades ago trained Murdoch to be an EMT.
Murdoch, 53, died Thursday, Feb. 16 at his home. Left to mourn his loss are his wife Claudine, sons Preston and Nick, mother Dawn, brother and right-hand man Will, sister Darren and countless friends and family members. His loss also leaves voids that will be difficult, if not impossible, to fill at Murdoch Oil and on the Greybull Volunteer Fire Department, where he’d been serving as chief since 1997.
A complete obituary recapping Paul’s life and funeral arrangements appears inside this issue. Much of that life was spent in the public eye. A 1982 graduate of Greybull High School, he chose to walk in the footsteps of his father, Bill Murdoch, whose purchase of the Standard Oil bulk plant from George Clements in 1967 launched what would eventually become Murdoch Oil.
Bill had set an example to follow, not only in business but also in the way that he gave back to the community. Before his death on March 2, 1998, Bill had served two terms as the town’s mayor and 25 years as its’ fire chief.
Paul eventually replaced him, taking over in 1997 — the year Bill retired — and proceeded to guide the department for the next 20 years until his death last week, which came in the midst of the fire department’s preparations for potential spring flooding.
Neil Beisler has been the department’s assistant chief for several years. With Paul’s passing, he has been elevated to the role of the acting chief and will remain in place through at least the end of the year.
Speaking Monday afternoon, Beisler said, “I’ll do the best I can, but it’s going to be impossible to fill his shoes. There will be a learning curve, no doubt. Before, when we had questions, we always had Paul.”
Beisler and Chuck Spragg, who works at Murdoch Oil and also serves on the fire department, shed some light on Paul’s final days. He hadn’t been feeling well, complaining of difficulty breathing. But fearful of the flood potential, he had tried to work through it, coordinating with other emergency managers and assisting firemen in the burning of the slash piles along the Big Horn River on Tuesday and Wednesday.
On Thursday, Paul called in sick, something he very rarely did. He was found at his home early in the afternoon. Attempts to revive him there and at South Big Horn County Hospital were unsuccessful. Atwood cited natural causes as his preliminary finding and said that an autopsy is being performed, the results of which won’t be available for two to three weeks.
If there was one quality about Paul that stood out above all the rest, it might have been his ability to lead.
“He could walk into a room where someone was on the floor having a medical crisis, there could be five people screaming and Paul would immediately see the path of what needed to be done,” said Atwood. “It was a tremendous gift that he had, the ability to be a critical thinker and to see the way through a crisis.”
Atwood also spoke of Murdoch’s contributions to the rural health care district, which oversees the local ambulance service. John Coyne III, president and CEO of Big Horn Federal and a good friend of Murdoch’s, went a step further, saying, “Our EMS service exists because of Paul Murdoch.”
Atwood added, “There was no B.S. to Paul Murdoch. He was a doer. A person who made things happen.”
Beisler said he joined the department when Bill was chief and continued to serve under Paul. During Paul’s time as chief, and with the help of the community and the efforts of his fellow firefighters, the GFD built and moved into a new fire hall, a significant achievement. The GFD also upgraded virtually all of its vehicles and equipment.
“The continuity we have in this fire department is unlike any other fire department that I know of,” said Beisler, crediting the leadership of the Murdochs along with the community’s support of department efforts. “It’s still an honor in this town to be on the fire department; it’s not a chore.”
Spragg and Beisler repeatedly referred to Murdoch as a natural leader with an innate ability to think and act under fire — and as someone who either at the station or on a fire call would never ask a person to do something he wouldn’t be willing to do himself.
Jason Cheatham is the business’s longest-tenured employee, with 24 ½ years at Murdoch’s. One of the things he liked most about Paul’s management style was the respect and loyalty he showed to his employees. “He never insisted or demanded … he asked,” said Cheatham. “You wanted to work for him.”
Like Atwood, Cheatham appreciated Murdoch’s steady hand. “We’d be in a stressful situation, he’d laugh and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ Then we’d go do it. He never seemed to stress.”
Murdoch was also heavily involved in the Greybull Elks Lodge, serving as exalted ruler from 1994-95. He and his band of cooking buddies also spent many a night in the kitchen, prepping delicious meals for Elks functions and community events while needling away at each other.
Coyne, the family’s choice to deliver the eulogy at Wednesday morning’s funeral service, spoke of his friendship with Murdoch, one that he traced all the way back to the baseball fields of his youth when Paul was his coach.
The relationship evolved when, as a young college student, Coyne worked for a time at Murdoch Oil. “On a personal level, that’s when I started to learn how good he was at making it easy for people to get help when they needed it. He was able to take care of everybody, so everybody became loyal to him. All they had to do was ask; Paul would make it happen.”
College and career took Coyne away from Greybull for a number of years, but the two men reconnected when Coyne returned to take over Big Horn Federal. Murdoch had a long relationship with the bank and at the time of his death, was serving on its board of directors. “I’ve worked with a lot of people in my life, and I will tell you that Paul was as savvy as anyone I’ve ever worked with in terms of knowing how to run his business,” said Coyne.
He described Murdoch as “a social chameleon, someone who could go into any setting and be comfortable with it” and recalled the time he and Murdoch went to a UW football game and visited the suite of late Casper businessman and philanthropist Mick Mc-Murray. “There was a long line of people standing in line wanting to have a shot at talking to Mick … Mick only wanted to talk with Paul, whom he’d just met. ‘Only Paul,’ I thought to myself. He never really wanted to be the center of attention, but he always was.”
“His heart was just tremendous. To the very end, he was always there for everybody in this community.”