Paul Murphy is an independent freight agent with Ikon Transportation; President of the Janesville Velo Club; organizer of Janesville’s Gran Prix Bike Race; and a former Janesville City Council Member.
Interview by Teresa Nguyen
Tell me about your family history.
My grandmother, Ellen, came to Rock County from Ireland via Canada as a 13-year-old girl with her aunt to work at her aunt’s restaurant in downtown Janesville. It was located on Milwaukee Street, near Academy Street.
Her husband, Thomas Joseph Murphy was born of Irish Immigrants and was orphaned before his sixth birthday. He came up to Rock County from Memphis, Tennessee, originally from Ireland. My grandfather and his sister were then raised by his mother Bridget’s family, the Roach family here in Janesville.
Tell me about your parents.
My father, Eugene, served in World War II, then became a truck driver for 32 years for Gateway Transportation.
To the day he died, he said the unions were important to labor. He said what happened to unions is that they lost their focus. They were there for the worker but got too political, too involved, too powerful. He was a unique guy; an Irish Catholic, union member Republican.
He talked about long work hours and borderline safe equipment. He saw the benefits and the purpose of the union. He always got eight hours of pay for eight hours of work and educated me on that.
My dad retired in October of 1982, and in June of ‘83 his fellow employees, who were still there, were locked out of work! Back in the 1970’s and 80’s it was very common for “here today, gone tomorrow.” I watched that as a kid. But, I also ended up going into transportation.
My mother, Dorothy, graduated from Whitewater Teacher’s College, with a Business degree. She taught for two years in Pecatonica, Illinois. She was ahead of her time. After teaching a couple of years, she married my dad and raised 11 children. I’m number 8 of 11, born here in Janesville.
As the family grew, Mom taught night school in a downtown building, which is now the Educational Services Center for the School District of Janesville. It was a vocational school for people who wanted to take typing, bookkeeping or shorthand. They also taught driver’s education to adults.
My mom taught as a tutor during the summers out of our home. She was one of the first women back in the 1970’s to have homebound students for young girls who were pregnant, but weren’t allowed to go to school. She would sometimes go to students’ houses and teach typing or shorthand.
Eventually, she worked as a substitute teacher, including a long-term position at the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. She learned Braille, had a general idea of it, but didn’t have to rely on it.
Where did you go to school?
I went to St. Mary’s Catholic School. I had to stay after quite a few times writing, “I will not talk” on the chalkboard. Getting home late from school was no big deal, because we all walked to and from school.
Well, my mom had no idea that I had to stay after school and write 100 times on the chalkboard for Sister Joan. Then one night, I was at home and Mom came home from teaching night school. She happened to give Sister Joan a ride home. Sister Joan was taking night classes. She had told my mother that I stayed after school quite a few times. Boy, my heart sank!
I attended middle school at Franklin and then Parker High School.
What were some of your activities in high school?
My involvement included football, wrestling, and Letterman’s Club. When I was a sophomore, I thought was going to be an athletic trainer. I took as many science courses as I could and realized that, man, I didn’t cut it! So, I decided to go into business.
I attended UW-Whitewater earning a Communications degree with an emphasis in Public Relations and a minor in General Business.
The Public Relations classes emphasized communication, writing and public speaking. Those benefited me greatly in sales. I’ve always been involved in sales/operations. The degrees helped me a lot in my community activities, as well, and in my campaign for council.
Communications was a great foundation for dealing with all kinds of people.
Tell me about your working career.
I worked my way through college at the United Parcel Service. From 1971 until the early 2000’s there was always a Murphy brother that worked at United Parcel Service. There were five of us, and all of us worked our way through college there. I was in Janesville.
Then, my first job out of college was with Ruan Transportation, a family-owned business.
In the 70’s, Ruan Transportation was the premiere transportation carrier for petroleum products. And John Ruan, who died just a few years ago in his 90’s, wore a suit and bow tie every day. That was his style. He was a very distinguished man. He was an incentive minded guy, unbelievably hard working and an exceptionally positive influence on me.
I was hired in 1985, when they were just starting to put the skywalks in downtown Des Moines, Iowa. Ruan built this beautiful building downtown, then they developed a big Marriot hotel. He was very instrumental in spearheading the transformation and revitalization of downtown Des Moines.
What happened after Ruan?
I left Ruan in 1998 and then worked for Westphal Electric. I ran their service and maintenance department.
The desire to have my own business was always there and I had an opportunity to buy a shredding business from J&W Transfer, from Jeff Knopes. I grew that, and then got involved in recycling, partnering with a guy down in Rockford. Within three years I sold my business to a large company.
Then I thought I’d start working outside my non-compete agreement. So, I bought another truck and made the mistake of only having one contract. I had a pretty good business, but when you get that call saying they’re not going to use you anymore, and that’s like 50 percent of your business, it’s pretty financially devastating.
I experienced that financial downswing back in 2008-‘09. One day I had a truck that had a fair market value of $64,000 and within six months, because of the recession, I couldn’t get $15,000 for it! I ended up selling it for $12,000. I learned a lot and it made me very humble. Compared to other people, I had small stress.
In 2009, I completely changed course and went to a brokerage, now Ikon Transportation. I’ve been a transportation broker since.
Where did you meet your wife Julie?
I met Julie on a blind date. It was January of 1986.
I had bought my first house in June of 1985. On Labor Day 1985, a longtime friend, Nancy Christofferson from Beloit, and I were talking. She said, “Paul, I’ve got someone I’d like you to meet.” I was hesitant, but she insisted.
So, on Dec. 13, 1985, I introduced myself to Julie at the Chas V. Weise’s customer service counter where she was working with her mother. It was colder than the dickens out and I was on my way home from my job at Ruan in South Beloit. That was the only time I could see her.
We went on a bowling date in January. I proposed to her on Aug. 29, 1986, and we were married Aug. 29, 1987. That was 31 years ago!
Tell me about your family.
Our son Zach, who’s with JP Cullen, graduated from UW-Stout. He’s the oldest and lives here in town. He and his wife, Kayla, have three children: Mason, Thomas and Mackenzie.
Our daughters, Abbie and Ali, are twins. Abbie lives over in Bayview. Ali is up in Madison. I think they are each other’s best friend. They are as much alike as they are different.
We found out early from the ultrasound that we were having twins. It was interesting having two at once! When you’re done with diapers you’re done with diapers. When you’re done with cribs you’re done with cribs.
It’s nice that all three of our children went to college, they graduated and all have good-paying jobs and benefits. They have a good strong work ethic, so that’s a plus.
Tell me about your community involvement.
Well, it may have started young. When I was 6 years old, around 1965, there was a local grocery store called Simonsen’s on the corner of Glen and Caroline. On Sunday mornings, Pete Skelly and his buddies would show up, everyone drinking Sundrop, and he would sit there and talk history.
I remember going there a lot to hang out. Then, I was working at the store as just a little kid, taking care of trash for Ron Nitz who, was a teenaged clerk there. He’d give me 25 cents a week! Later, when I was a teen, I got a job there on weekends.
Anyway, Taffy apples were 10 cents at the time and suddenly went up to 12 cents! That made us upset! So on a Friday morning, at just 6 years old, I organized a protest with a bunch of neighborhood kids. I was a rebel. We walked around with signs on the corner outside Simonsen’s. They never did lower the price. In fact, it went up to 15 cents!
I wasn’t particularly active in high school or in clubs because I was out for sports and I worked.
When I was 18, I was elected to the parish council at St. Mary’s. I didn’t serve for long because of school.
When I came back from college, got involved in the Lions Club. That was a great community group and still is.
When I married Julie, we taught religious education at St. Mary’s and helped run their Fall Festival.
What motivated you to run for Janesville City Council?
I always watched the city council meetings on cable. I kept a pulse on the community by being involved and doing other activities. I used to go down on Tuesday mornings to the YMCA and talk about the council meeting the night before, just to update the crew.
There were some decisions being made which I thought weren’t ideal. Dave Johnson, who used to be the general manager of the Gazette, said to me, “Pauly, why don’t you run?” I said, “I will!”
That was 1997. I ran, got beat, came back in 1998, won that race, ran and won in 2000 and 2002. I served on the Janesville City Council from 1998 to 2004.
Did you enjoy serving on the council?
I did enjoy it! I learned so much about this city, and gained an appreciation for the city government. The city has your best interests in mind. They turn the rock over many times to make the right decision. They look at the pros and cons.
The meetings are broadcast to the public, so everything you say and do is out there. At the county and state level, about the only time you know what they’re doing is if something is written about them.
When you’re on the city council, you’re truly involved in your community. It was the council that really opened my eyes up to Janesville.
I strongly believe that council members should never get paid. They should not get a dime. What happens with that is then it becomes a job. You serve on the council for your community, it’s a public service for your community. I will speak against the council getting paid until the day I die.
How did you become involved in the G.I.F.T.S. Men’s Shelter?
At first, I was against it. I just didn’t think it was right to host a homeless shelter in the church where there are children. And I felt that they were skirting the zoning issues. If it was going to be permanent, they would have had to go before the council.
Eventually, I felt that the right thing to do was to be a part of it, and help the church make sure these men had a warm place to stay. I cleaned the bathrooms, and worked “clean-up” on Saturdays and Sundays. I would arrive early, have a cup of coffee, and sit there with a couple of the guys that did the overnight stay for the church.
Then, I started to interact with these people. I realized that when I showed up in the morning, there weren’t a lot of cardboard boxes and shopping carts parked on the lawn.
TV and movies often stereotype homeless people. But, there were guys there that simply lost their jobs and didn’t have that safety belt. Around the time the homeless shelter was developed, that was about the time I had transitioned from having a very close call with the economy and my business. I had a better perspective.
Since then, I started becoming more involved and saw some great success stories. For example, this summer during the bike race downtown, I was walking around and a guy said,” Hey Paul, how are you doing?” I didn’t recognize him. Then he said, “I’m Pete.”
Pete was a guy who was in the men’s shelter for two years. Now he’s sober and clean with a consistent job. He’s getting back on his feet. He wanted to tell me how when he once had a really good job with Beloit Corp, he used to take his kids to bike races. He really appreciated us having the race in downtown Janesville.
Those are the type of stories that are really rewarding and make you think about these guys in shelter. Who knows where they were before?
How did you become involved in biking?
I didn’t have a serious interest as a young man. We had a car. When you’re a kid, the bike is your only way. Then, this crazy thing called a car comes along, and you just dabble on the bike a little bit.
When you have children, you ride bike with them. When you grow older and become an empty nester, you’ve got time on your hands. So, you start rediscovering your youth again by riding a bicycle.
I started riding a bicycle 70 pounds ago! I have used bicycling for fitness, but also, I have never seen Rock County the way I’ve seen it from a bicycle. When you’re driving, you’re going so fast you’re missing so much.
On a daily basis, I get on my bicycle, either by myself or with people who are experienced, like Doug Venable and Paul Braun, two of the guys in the Bicycle Club. They probably know every crack in the roads of Rock County.
They take me places, and then we go for 25 miles to go get a cup of coffee or have breakfast, and visit and then we ride back. I’ve seen places that maybe I drove by at 50 miles per hour. You really appreciate and understand the beauty of the terrain from the bike.
Now you’re President of the Janesville Velo Club! How did that get started?
Well, bicycling has been around in Janesville a long time. According to Mrs. Tallman’s diary, they used to have Sunday afternoon bicycling events. At the fairgrounds there was bicycling.
The Velo Club was incorporated here in Janesville in the year 2000. It always ran out of bicycle shops. I joined in 2009.
There’s a group of both men and women involved in cycling, with road racing, road biking and off road biking. One day at Michael’s Cycles, I saw Bill Brown. He was one of my customers through the shredding business. He encouraged me to join the Velo Club.
One Tuesday night at 5:30, I took my hybrid Husky down to Palmer Park, wearing my phy ed trunks, my t-shirt and tennis shoes. When I arrived, here were these men and women with tricked out bikes and tricked out uniforms. Fortunately, I have the kind of personality where that didn’t intimidate me. Plus, I knew most of these people, so it was very comfortable. If I had not been involved in the community and were a stranger to all these people, I would have been very intimidated!
It’s a very unique group of people who are very helpful and very friendly. At the time, I could last eight miles with the group and then I was finished. One night, I was down by Beloit and Doug led me back to Janesville. We had a nice chance to visit. 70 pounds lighter, I’m still riding!
Tell me about some of the Velo Club’s projects.
The Velo Club has bike rodeos, bike festivals, road races downtown, or we take bicycles and partner with the Janesville Noon Lions Club. We maintain the bikes for the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
The principal over at Jackson Elementary School was telling me about biking, and Katherine Scott over at SSM health offered to help. She challenged me, providing the Velo Club with a grant of $750 to see if we could get students without means onto bicycles.
I thought, “How am I going to do that?” That was on a Wednesday. Well, the way God works, on Friday a person came up to me and said, “Hey, there’s a boiler room full of bicycles and they want to know what to do with it.” I couldn’t believe it! 48 hours before, I had no clue!
I found out that bicycles are a lot like rabbits. Somebody finds out that you’ve got 22 bicycles stored and over a two-month period, those 22 bikes turn into 35 bikes!
People would ask, “Oh, you collect bikes?” Someone called me up, “Hey Murph, I’m cleaning out my basement, I’ve got 3 bikes. The kids are all grown and they don’t use them.” I said, “I’ll come pick them up!”
So, between SSM Health, an anonymous donor, the Velo Club, and Michael’s cycles, we put together 26 bicycles that were all nicely fixed up and loaded them all in a truck.
That Friday afternoon, when I pulled up to Jackson school, we had a little talk out in front. I asked the kids if they were ready for the bikes. I open up the back of the Michael’s Cycles van and was just struck by the excitement! You would have thought that I picked up 26 brand new bikes from Trek in Waterloo, Wisconsin!
I whispered to the principal, “These bikes, some of these are from 1980.” She told me that for people who don’t have anything, it’s just amazing.
I got in the truck, and I couldn’t say enough prayers, thanking God for letting me experience that. It’s just incredible. Now, this spring, the kids down at Jackson School will be able to have biking in their Phy Ed curriculum.
The bicycle is a great equalizer. I’ll never forget two summers ago, I was on a ride and on one side of me was a railroad engineer, a yard guy from Southern WI Rail, and on the other, a pulmonologist from Mercy Hospital. It doesn’t matter where we come from, we all enjoy it.
How were you instrumental in bringing the Gran Prix bike race to Janesville?
Well, I cheated a little bit. Five years ago, I volunteered down at the Beloit race. I thought, “This is pretty cool!” I was just stunned! I was thinking that this would be pretty cool in Janesville. It was around the time we were hearing things about ARISE and revitalizing the downtown.
Then, I volunteered at Bayview, where my daughter is. I wanted to learn a bit more about how this thing ticks. I volunteered over there a second time, and then again.
One early morning, around 4:30 a.m., John Westphal and I were out riding. We were all bundled up and I said, “John, I think Janesville’s ready for this!” He said, “I’ll help you.”
So, I made a phone call to a guy by the name of Bill Koch and asked him, “Could I have dinner with you?” He said, “Yeah sure.”
So, I met with Bill Koch and Bill Ochowicz, whose brother Jim has been a manager of professional cycling teams in the Tour de France. We were in this restaurant in Pewaukee, and Bill and Bill were like good cop and bad cop. Bill Koch is good cop and Bill Ochowicz is the guy that says, “I’ve been down this road before.”
I came back to John with the estimated costs and such with the goal for 2019 or 2020. Then, in November 2017, Bill Koch called me, “Murph this is Bill. If you got a date, would you be ready?”
I knew what it would cost, I had no idea where we were going to get the money, but I said, “Yes!”
If you say no, you never know when you’ll get that opportunity again. As soon as I got off the phone, I called up John Westphal to tell him the scoop. Then I called up Mark Freitag, Janesville City Manager.
We immediately reached out to Blain’s. Mick Gilbertson is a bicyclist. They are so good about giving back to the community, and they said, “Yes.” That was the real key!
There were so many people that didn’t quite get it. But once the race was here, they saw Janesville in a different light that day. What was neat was that the event was free!
We had inclement weather, but I was sitting on stage during the men’s race, looking down on umbrellas and all the people. The rain came, we cleared the course, then the Janesville people came back to continue watching. It was amazing to see young and old, people who aren’t bicyclists at all, standing there so close to the competitors!
And the competitors were in awe of what the Janesville residents did on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. They were saying, “Wow, I’ve never been so welcomed to a community like I’ve been here Janesville.”
We heard comments about how Janesville’s “got it right,” how we have equity in the women’s races when it comes to prize money. We gave equal prize money. The women’s division, the men’s division they both got $8500. That’s unheard of. We set a precedent. Racers will want to come to Janesville.
When will we see another Gran Prix?
On Tuesday, June 25, 2019 we’re bringing it to downtown Janesville again. Our downtown and the Rock River are great assets.
John Westphal and I grew up here. We went to high school here, went to college, we came back and we both served on the city council. John said it best, “This is our hometown, our downtown, our passion.”
We took our passion for bicycling, our passion for revitalizing downtown, for our hometown, and we put it all in one package.
How do you see Janesville’s downtown revitalization today?
I think it’s heading in the right direction. Things won’t come quickly, you know. It’s like in the movie, Field of Dreams, “Build it and they will come.” It’s happening! We have the new Town Square, things happening at JPAC, the new hotel and Blackhawk Community Credit Union’s Legacy Center.
Tell me about your building downtown.
Last year, while getting ready for the bicycle race, I was talking to businesses and the people downtown. I came back to my brother, Tom, and I said, “The downtown’s happening. If there is ever an opportunity, we should look at a building.”
At 219 West Milwaukee St., Kevin Riley was moving, so we went to Kevin saying, “We’d be very interested.” We struck a deal. We had no idea what we were getting into, but what we got was a circa 1865 building.
We just started to restore our building. We’re almost finished. One of the first things I did was call up the city’s Codes Department to walk us through it. As we uncovered stuff, we’d call them and they’d come over and look at it.
We started peeling back the onion and found the original wood-fluted ceiling, the original yellow birch floor and the original prism glass façade!
The company that manufactured the windows commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright at the World’s Fair in Chicago. Frank Lloyd Wright submitted 42 designs to this company. They chose one.
If you go around and look, there are some buildings on Main Street and some in the 400 block of West Milwaukee St. with it. That prism glass was built the way it was because of poor lighting back then. And on the outlines of the glass there are designs.
Sadly, it was covered with plywood. That could have been broken! So we’ve been able to restore it and save our building, another Janesville jewel.
Do you intend to use it for retail?
Yes! We want to use it for retail. We’re hoping that someone will come about. In the 200 West block of West Milwaukee Street there’s a very unique situation. Most of the building owners are in that neighborhood six to seven days a week. There are the folks over at O’Reilly’s, Cozy Inn, the owners of Velvet and Tulle’s, Hometown Pharmacy and Home Again.
It’s a unique neighborhood. It’ll be interesting to see who else might have the blessing of buying a building in downtown, bringing it to life!
Do you and Julie want to stay in Rock County?
Oh yeah. We will probably need to downsize one of these days. We live in an 1890 Victorian home. But, yeah, we’re planning to stay in the community.
“We took our passion for bicycling, our passion for revitalizing downtown, for our hometown, and we put it all in one package.” ~ Paul Murphy on bringing the Gran Prix to Janesville