It was before the movie Lone Survivor was released in theaters. It was before actors Mark Wahlburg and Taylor Kitsch helped reintroduce a national hero from Patchogue to the rest of the country.
It was July of 2012. That was when Emily Marge of Medford, who wasn’t yet a sophomore, emailed her principal about something that was bothering her.
She was 15 when she wrote this:
“The reason why I wanted to contact you is about the LT. Michael Murphy memorial at the school. My sister and I were walking back from tennis camp and noticed that the memorial needs a ‘cleanup.’
“There are weeds growing in the area of the memorial and also there is chewing gum and other waste products … my sister and I will gladly dedicate our time to cleanup this important memorial. We will buy all the flowers, etc. Also we will maintain it if it gets dirty again. But first we wanted to know if we have the permission.”
High school principal Randy Rusielewicz got back to Emily right away, and asked for a meeting.
And that’s when it all began.
From then on, Emily and a friend at the high school, Erin Maud, helped care for what was then an often-overlooked monument that sat behind the school for Michael Murphy, a 1994 graduate who was killed leading a team of Navy SEALs in Afghanistan in 2005.
He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2007.
Aside for caring for the monument at the school, the girls went on to preserve the fallen SEAL’s memory by establishing a Michael Murphy memorial display case, along with a 9/11 display, in what is now the school’s Hall of Heroes.
In fact, the two girls helped establish the Hall of Heroes itself.
The hallway honors not only Michael Murphy’s memory and sacrifice, but the sacrifices of all other Patchogue-Medford graduates who served in the U.S. armed forces.
Not long after the hit film Lone Survivor premiered in December 2013, it was decided by the school board that the school’s campus would be named after Lt. Michael Murphy. The idea was first considered in 2008 but had since been overlooked.
Around that same time in 2014, Dr. Rusielewicz summoned Emily and Erin to his office to tell them the good news — and to ask for help.
“I said there’s something really big that’s going on, that we’re going to dedicate the campus to Lt. Michael Murphy,” he recalled. “And of course they were surprised and I said I wanted them to be the main students behind it.”
Dr. Rusielewicz said it was the students themselves, led by Emily Marge and Erin Maud, that organized the impressive dedication ceremony, the centerpiece of which were several massive banners — designed by Ellen DiFazio’s art students — that now hang permanently in the school’s Hall of Heroes.
“It was all the students,” Dr. Rusielewicz said. “Michael Murphy’s parents didn’t see the banners until the end of the night. Unbeknownst to them the curtains opened up and all these banners got exposed, and the parents, they just couldn’t believe it.
“And I had known at that point in time, there was something these two girls started, and the rest of the school rallied behind, and we created a night that was bigger than ourselves.
“It was the trustiest sense of Patchogue-Medford pride that I had every felt.”
story continues below photo
There’s no missing the massive sign emblazoned above the main entrance of Patchogue-Medford High School.
It reads: Navy (SEAL) LT Michael P. Murphy Campus.
This November, the campus’ naming was further marked by a stone monument funded by the Navy SEAL Foundation. The new monument outlines Lt. Michael Murphy’s heroic acts that earned him the Medal of Honor.
And the Hall of Heroes is a veritable shrine to Michael Murphy.
The walls are painted in red, white and blue, instead of the traditional school colors. Also hanging are those large, colorful banners that were used at the dedication, most of which feature large photos of Michael Murphy. There are also two digital displays that list the names of graduates that were killed in action or served in the military.
Indeed, the students are instructed to treat the hallway as if it were solemn ground, Dr. Rusielewicz explained.
“We tell the kids, when they walk down this hallway, take a look, this is someone who is no longer with us, who passed on, fighting for our country,” he said. “They realize Lt. Michael Murphy is a war hero, but it’s so much more than that. It’s the values he embodied: character, commitment, honor, integrity, courage, sacrifice …
“All good things that when you talk to kids, you say listen, these things are important; these ideals are transferable to your everyday life, for yourself and your fellow peers.”
Even if their small act of courage is sticking up for a kid getting picked on, he said.
Elizabeth Marge, 16, was found in the hallway after school last month. There, she was swapping out some of the faded paper in the 9/11 display case for new paper that shouldn’t fade.
“I think that collectively, it’s definitely right that people started forgetting who he was,” Elizabeth said. “When we asked about the memorial, we knew he was such a national hero for our community and we knew it wasn’t right that was happening to a hero.
“And it’s good that we brought it back.”
story continues below photo
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
“I was like nervous,” said Emily Marge, now 19, of the day she sent a letter critical of the district’s treatment of the first Lt. Michael Murphy memorial, which sits behind the school alongside the baseball diamond.
“I had never met the principal before, and he was the head guy,” Emily said.
She assumed he wouldn’t respond. Instead, he asked to meet.
That’s when she paired with Erin for help. (Though she had offered the services of her sister, Elizabeth Marge was still in the middle school at the time.)
“I texted Erin, help me, this is going to be cool,” she said. “We both know the importance of honoring our veterans. My great-grandfather always pushed me to help the veterans.
That same great-grandfather to Emily and Elizabeth, Elias Marge, served in World War II. Another great-grandfather, their mother Debbie’s grandfather, John Thomas Greane, was killed in Normandy on D-Day.
“We’ve always been a military family,” said Debbie Marge, who had urged Emily to write the letter. She and her daughters were walking back to the car from tennis camp when they noticed the neglected memorial.
Debbie Marge wasn’t surprised Emily went on to dedicate so much time during her high school career to preserving Michael Murphy’s memory, and also to helping soldiers and veterans.
“Emily has always been a passionate person,” she said. “The same thing for Elizabeth. They’re always thinking of others.”
“Emily was concerned when she left for college,” she added. “She thought maybe it would all fall by the wayside, and then her sister took over. I couldn’t be more proud.”
As for Erin Maud, 18, now a freshman at SUNY Geneseo, she said she jumped at the chance to help her friend.
“l was totally on board,” she recalled. “We first made a paper display with a couple picture frames, but it was pretty simple,” she said. “But we worked on it more over the summer into last school year, and we made it really official. It had big frames and decorations and we made a second display for 9/11.”
Not only that, the pair had resurrected the Support our Soldiers club (which is now on hiatus after the club’s advisor couldn’t keep it up).
“This way it wasn’t a one-time project doing the display case,” Erin said. “So in our senior year we had the club running and we did a candy drive and we sent like 50 boxes to troops overseas. We also gave out like 400 Valentines to veterans.”
“You always knew people went to war and stuff,” she continued, “but to be able to send packages to them and write Valentines, it brings it closer to home. It’s like, wow, I impacted these people. I tried to make their days better.”
And making a bit of an impact was the girls’ only motivation.
“What really stuck out in my mind, was they came to me on their own,” Dr. Rusielewicz said. “They were just two kids coming forward, they wanted to honor Michael Murphy and make sure this monument was well kept and respected. They wanted to do this long before any dedication of the campus.
“These were two students who did it when no one was looking.”
And they continue to do just that.
Elizabeth hopes to bring back the Support our Soldiers Club for next year.
“Then hopefully the club could [maintain the Hall of Heroes] and clean the cases,” she said. “Or maybe pass it down to someone else, maybe a freshman.”
Even with the brand new monument out front, the old memorial behind the school hasn’t been forgotten about.
Emily, a freshman at SUNY Brockport, recently visited the first Lt. Michael Murphy monument during her Thanksgiving break.
She’ll do so again this Christmas.
“Whenever I go back home, I check it. I make sure everything is OK,” she said. “It’s like my baby.”
Moving forward, perhaps for generations, the American hero Lt. Michael Murphy will continue to inspire students right here in Patchogue-Medford.
That will be in large part to Emily, Erin and Elizabeth.
“He put his words into actions and would do anything in his power to help his fellow comrades and his country,” Emily said. “I only hope to be as courageous as him.
“I also hope that the efforts I put in will inspire other students one day, even just one student who might not know his path, to enter that hallway and see that memorial and know they can make a difference and do something bigger than themselves.”
The high school students’ efforts with the Hall of Heroes are ongoing. Military veterans who attended Patchogue-Medford, or their families, are urged to click here to register for inclusion in the hallway’s two digital displays.