Honoree:  Marilyn Murphy

Honoree Category:  Women

Sioux City Catholic Diocese Social Concerns Facilitator
Rural Life Contact for Catholic Charities, Sioux City
Tireless advocate for justice, equality and peace
Marilyn Murphy, Women Honoree
Bio – Marilyn Murphy
1921 – 2012

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We live in a world saturated with information, yet we know little about people at the margins of our society, Marilyn Murphy told readers in her “Commentary” column in the Sept. 16, 1999, edition of The Catholic Globe.

Through her words and actions, Marilyn fought to give voice to those who were not heard. She advocated for families living in poverty or near poverty; for women trapped in domestic violence; for children, born and unborn, at high risk for easily preventable disease; for immigrants struggling to adapt; and for family farmers fighting for the survival of their way of life.

Marilyn fueled public discourse about how we as a community, a state and a nation treat people with mental illnesses and addictions. She pushed for legislation to protect our environment.

Using the message of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Marilyn challenged us to promote goodwill and understanding among people of all races, religions and ethnic groups: “Unless we learn to live together…, we shall all perish as fools.”

Marilyn was committed to leaving the world a better place for our children and all who come after us. As director of various social ministries for the Catholic Diocese of Sioux City and a tireless volunteer on numerous local, area, state and national boards and commissions, she touched the lives of thousands.

At her death on May 28, 2012, the mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and impassioned advocate for justice, equality and peace, did, indeed, leave the world a better place.

Rural beginnings

Marilyn was born on April, 24, 1921, at Ponca, Neb., one of six children of Raymond C. and Mary F. “Molly” Davey Delaney. She grew up in Sioux City where she graduated mid-year in 1939 from Central High School.

As World War II raged, Marilyn and her best friend, Claire O’Brien, enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve’s W.A.V.E. corps in 1943. “W.A.V.E.” stands for “Women Accepted for Volunteer Service.” She and Claire were sent to boot camp at New York’s Hunter College where they learned to march in formation and earned $11 a month. After boot camp Marilyn served as an air traffic control operator in Olathe, Kan.

After the war ended on Aug. 15, 1945, Marilyn returned to Sioux City and used the G.I. Bill to continue her education at Briar Cliff College, which at that time was a women’s college founded by the Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque. After earning a degree in 1946, she was employed as a Woodbury County probation officer.

Marilyn married Raymond William “Murph” Murphy on Sept. 26, 1947, in Sioux City. The couple had three children – Tim, Molly and Maggie. Raymond died on Oct. 24, 1976. Family was her priority.

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A life of service

Beginning in the mid-1950s, Marilyn joined with others to serve on boards, committees and commissions dedicated to helping others. In some cases, she made history as “the first.”

She was the first laywoman on the Briar Cliff University Board of Trustees; the first chairwoman of the Council of Community Services and the Iowa Commission of Substance Abuse; and the first president of the Woodbury County Community Action Agency, now the Community Action Agency of Siouxland. She chaired the Sioux City Human Rights Commission for three years.

Marilyn co-founded the Sioux City Chapter of the Women’s Political Caucus; the Council on Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence; and La Casa Latina. She assisted in the formation of the Commission on Women in Church and Society.

The recipient of numerous awards for service, including the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame Governor’s Award in 1988, Marilyn rarely talked or wrote about her achievements. Rather, she advocated for people and issues dear to her heart. Among them was the struggle of Northwest Iowa family farmers. In 1973, Marilyn began her 35-year career as the first Sioux City Diocese Social Concerns Facilitator/Rural Life Contact for Catholic Charities, Sioux City.

Salt of the earth

Marilyn understood that during the agricultural boom of the 1970s family farmers were encouraged to plant “from fencerow to fencerow,” acquire more land and buy new farm equipment.

When the farm crisis hit in the early and mid-1980s, she saw the impact of high interest rates, low commodity prices and plummeting land prices squeezing the life out of many Northwest Iowa family farmers, small-town businesses and farm-implement dealerships. She witnessed the enormous emotional toll the “farm crisis” was taking on people she considered “the salt of the earth.”

The economic struggle created serious and ongoing social issues, Marilyn said in the September 2000 issue of Lay Witness magazine. “Farm families and families in rural communities are struggling to make both ends meet, so we have an inordinate number of families where both parents are working, and so you get into all the day-care issues. Domestic violence increases, alcoholism increases, stress on children, stress on parents…things are not going well in rural America.”

Marilyn acted as an advocate and resource for family farm agriculture and the rural communities that depended on them. In the mid-1980s, she stood with family farmers, laborers, clergy and small-town business people as they joined peers in several states and pressured Congress for legislative changes. She supported farm families as their way of life continued to be shoved off the American cultural landscape.

Protecting a way of life

“Four out of five Iowa counties lost more farms during the mid-1990s than during the 1980s,” Marilyn wrote in her May 13, 1999, Commentary column. Iowa lost 11 percent of its farms between 1992 and 1997, compared with a loss of 7 percent between 1982 and 1987.

Marilyn warned that agriculture was becoming concentrated in fewer hands. She and other family farm advocates didn’t condemn the “many good people involved in industrialized agriculture.” They did, however, warn of industrialization’s impact on family farming.

While much of the nation was prospering in the 1990s, independent hog producers were being squeezed. Rural communities were losing population. “With the loss of jobs and people, support for schools, churches and public services withers and dies,” Marilyn wrote. “The accelerating degradation of our natural resources – air, water, and land – is reflected in almost daily reports of pollution, leading lagoons and fish kills.”

Marilyn supported those working for healthier choices, chiefly the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, established in October 1997. “They created an organization whose mission is to link and amplify women’s voices on issues of food systems, sustainable communities and environmental integrity. These are Iowa women,” she wrote.

Iowa women unable to speak out also were at the center of Marilyn’s moral consciousness.

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Advocating for sister-strangers

During Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October 1998, Marilyn shed light on the plight of battered immigrant women.

Immigrant women were living in Northwest Iowa in ever increasing numbers, seeking decent employment and greater quality of life for themselves and their families. While Northwest Iowans saw these women, few understood they were at higher risk for domestic abuse than U.S. citizens.

Marilyn explained that immigrant women tended to have less access to legal and social services than U.S. citizens. Victims and their abusers tended to believe that the U.S. legal system’s penalties and protections did not apply to them.

Further, immigrant women were likelier to suffer isolation which prevented them from leaving their abusers. They distrusted the legal system. They did not understand that their stories could be told in court. They thought judges would not believe them.

A victim may be in this country legally by virtue of her marriage to her abuser, however, her abuser still exerted control over her, Marilyn explained in The Catholic Globe on Oct. 15, 1998. Economics and legal or practical impediments to obtaining employment or public assistance also figured into the domestic-abuse trap.

If the woman attempted to flee, she had no access to bilingual shelters, financial assistance or food. It was unlikely she’d have a certified interpreter in court, when reporting complaints to police or a 911 operator or in acquiring information about her rights and the legal system. “We can respond by comforting, assisting and advocating for the sister-strangers among us,” Marilyn told readers.

In anticipation of Mother’s Day 1998, Marilyn pointed out the harsh reality of Iowa women and children who were victims of domestic and sexual violence and the urgent need for services to help them:

“In Iowa alone, 25,810 domestic violence victims sought help from domestic programs in 1996. In Iowa, 4,149 adult, teen-age and child survivors of sexual assault sought help in 1996 from sexual assault centers. Nationally, almost one million children were identified as victims of abuse or neglect in 1996.”

Along with raising consciousness about domestic violence, Marilyn worked tirelessly to build support for people struggling to make ends meet.

Protecting our children

The 1990s may have been good for some Iowans, Marilyn explained in her Sept. 16, 1999, column. But in the mid-1990s, some 51,000 Iowa families with children were living below the federal poverty line.

For more than 71 percent of Iowa’s poor families with children, earnings from work made up a majority of the families’ income. Nationally, more than 62 percent of families receiving public assistance had a working parent.

A significant number of American families had incomes slightly above the poverty line. Nearly all of these families had a full-time, year-round worker and a larger number had more than one full-time, year-round worker, she explained.

“The reality is that in a typical state, almost half of working poor families are headed by a married couple, most parents are 25 years of age or older and most have a high school education or better. This reality includes Iowa.”

Children living in poverty and near poverty are particularly vulnerable to diseases and injuries caused by environmental hazards, including air and water pollution; inappropriate and extensive use of chemicals; and exposure to lead, Marilyn wrote in her June 27, 2002, column.

She promoted the work of the Catholic Coalition toward improving our nation’s ability to track and prevent health problems linked to environmental conditions. Such work is essential “if we are to protect our children.”

Marilyn had the welfare of children and all people on her mind when she wrote about the United States’ failure to ratify the nuclear test ban treaty on Oct. 13, 1999. She spoke pointedly from her Oct. 21, 1999, Commentary.

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Let there be peace

The United States, in its leadership role, was the first nation to sign the treaty; 153 nations followed. But the treaty had to be ratified by all the world’s nuclear-capable countries to take effect, Marilyn explained. There were 44 countries in this category; 26 voted to ratify. Fifteen countries had signed but not ratified the treaty, including the United States.

Marilyn explained that the U.S. Constitution requires ratification of treaties by two-thirds of the U.S. Senate. The treaty was sent to the Senate shortly after it was signed. On October 13, 1999, the Senate, on a 51-48 vote, primarily along party lines, rejected the treaty.

“And so the doomsday clock that served as a warning that the world was moving closer to the final disaster, nuclear war, has to be taken off the shelf, dusted and rewound.”

Nuclear armaments numbered in the tens of thousands, as did conventional weapons, she told readers. “As a consequence, the world in the new millennium will not be a more ‘peaceable kingdom’ for our children – born and unborn…Each of us needs to have the moral courage to express our outrage at the U.S. Senate’s lack of same.”

A remarkable record

Amid her commitment on the front lines of peace, justice and equality, Marilyn gave countless hours to produce videos and serve on a wide range of Sioux City Metro-area boards and committees, beginning in the mid-1950s.

Marilyn wrote, directed and produced video programs for the Sioux City Catholic Diocese, including: “Love Shouldn’t Hurt”; “Healing the Wounded Spirit”; Reclaiming Our Rural Heritage”; “Trust Shouldn’t Betray”; “Women : A Wellspring of Faith”; and “Beyond Prison: Seeking Justice for All.”

Marilyn serviced on the: Sioux City Art Center (1955-59); Siouxland Rehabilitation Center Board (1958-66); United Fund Budget committee (1960-67, chair 1967); Council of Community Services (1965-69, president, 1966-68); Community Action Agency (1966-70 president, 1980 treasurer); Siouxland United Way Board (1968-71); Siouxland Health Planning Council (1968-75); Siouxland Crime Prevention Committee SIMPCO (1969-71); Council on Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence (1978-82); Siouxland Senior Center Board (1977-80); Center for Women Advisory Council, Briar Cliff College (1975-78); Marian Health Center Long-Range Planning (1981-83); Stella Sanford Day Care Center Board (1982); Siouxland Mental Health Center Board (1983); La Casa Latina (1989); The Center (2000); and Community Coalition Against Domestic Violence Board (2002 until her death).

Beyond the Sioux City Metro-area, numerous boards and committees benefitted from Marilyn’s service, including: Northwest Iowa Area Crime Commission (1972-76); Siouxland Drug Abuse Council (1974-76); Sub-Area Advisory Board, Iowa Health Systems (1975-81); Northwest Iowa Regional Coordinating Committee on Mental Health (1976-78); Northwest Iowa Juvenile Justice Advisory Council (1977-79); Sioux City Diocesan Coalition to Preserve Family Farms (1977 until her death); Northwest Iowa Ecumenical Rural Concerns Committee (1981-87); and Missouri River Historical Development, Inc. Board (MRHD) (1989 until her death).

At the state level, Marilyn served on the Iowa Health Systems Agency Board (1979-80); Iowa Coordinating Committee for International Women’s Year (1977); Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence (1980-82); Iowa Juvenile Justice Advisory Council (1976-77); Iowa Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission (1981-85, 1998); and the Iowa Commission on Substance Abuse (1977-85; chair 1981).

On the national level, Marilyn served on the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (1982-85).

Her memberships to various organizations included the NAACP; Junior League of Sioux City; League of Women Voters; Council of Catholic Women; Diocesan Coalition to Preserve Family Farms; Ecumenical Rural Concerns Committee; Siouxlanders Concerned About the Nuclear Arms Race; American Civil Liberties Union; Commission on Women in Church and Society, Diocese of Sioux City; Iowa Catholic Conference; and Siouxland Peace Coalition.

Marilyn was the recipient of numerous awards, including: the Briar Cliff College Community Service Award (1958); Kiwanis Club Community Service Award, 1976; Sioux City BPW Community Service Award, 1977; Sioux City Human Rights Commission Community Service Award, 1984; Junior League of Sioux City Dorothy Eaton Palmer Award, 1985; Briar Cliff College Medal of Honor, 1986; Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame, Governor’s Award, 1988; U.S. Civil Rights Commission, 1998; Sign of Hope, Catholic Charities, 1997; Women of Excellence, 1998; Women Aware’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, henceforth known as the “Marilyn Murphy Lifetime Achievement Award”; and the Cristine Wilson Medal for Equality and Justice in 2007 from the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women.


  • Cultivating Hope for Family Farms,” Lay Witness magazine, September 2000, p. 34.
  • Extraordinary Times ~ WWII veterans,” Sioux City Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center/Betty Strong Encounter Center: www.siouxcitylcic.com
  • The Catholic Globe, Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Sioux City,” “Commentary,” May 7, 1998; Oct. 15, 1998; May 13, 1999; Sept. 16, 1999, Oct. 21, 1999; June 27, 2002; p. 4.
  • The Sioux City Journal,” obituaries, May 30, 2012.

Additional Honorees for Women:  Mary Treglia and Jayne Yates