Something That You Love Doing: The David Murphy and Virginia Bowar Scholarship

Written by Jane Halpern on |
David Murphy
David Murphy at the 2013 ceremony for the naming of the MSA Legacy Classroom for David J. Murphy.

When you ask Dave Murphy to describe the goals of the UW-Platteville scholarship that bears his name, the recently-retired president of MSA Professional Services is typically modest. “I really hope that I made it easier on the students’ parents, on the families who are supporting them,” he said. “And I hope it makes a difference to the students.”

But when you begin to delve into Murphy’s career and life experience, you quickly discover that the civil engineer has blazed a trail that any Pioneer would be hard-pressed to follow—not least because if you follow in Dave Murphy’s footsteps, you had better grab a paddle. And some hiking boots. Oh, and a backpack, a sea kayak, a dogsled, a reinforced pickup truck capable of withstanding subzero temperatures, and some skis.

Murphy’s college career started out fairly typically. The Beloit, Wisconsin native chose Platteville for its small size and friendly feel, with the plan that he’d eventually transfer to UW-Madison and pursue mechanical engineering. But after two years of being a Pioneer, with summer jobs in construction and on railroads, Murphy decided that he loved being outdoors too much to pursue a career working inside. He switched to structural engineering, and after graduation landed a job outdoors. Very outdoors.

“I secured a job in Antarctica—assistant manager to the Field Party Processing Center in McMurdo,” Murphy said. “All the best scientists in the world were going to Antarctica, and I made sure they were outfitted for the rigors of where they were going,” says Murphy. Besides readying food, sleeping bags, and gear for helicopter trips to the dry valleys, Murphy provisioned sledges and scuba diving equipment for the scientists working on ice and in the sea—responsibilities which kept him busy for six and a half days per week.

“On Sundays we had free time, and it was just glorious. We would go skiing; it was light 24 hours a day, so we would get done with dinner and ski over to an escarpment overlooking the ocean and ice climb there,” said Murphy. “It’s what you do when you’re 22, right?” 

It might not be what the average 22-year-old does with his first job out of college, but it was in-character for Murphy, who spent the next years skiing and taking a job at the Rockford Sanitary District, which didn’t fit his nature. “You can only design so many sewers until you can do it in your sleep,” he said. Hungry for more interesting work, and harboring a passion for the outdoors that had ignited in Antarctica and would follow him for the rest of his life, Murphy decided to get his master’s in environmental engineering. He chose UW-Madison—not least because it had a sizeable canoeing and kayaking club—and earned his master’s in between wide-ranging weekends spent exploring the Class 4 and 5 rapids of Tennessee, West Virginia, and Idaho. So strong was his love of the outdoors that after graduation, Murphy and a group of friends embarked on an extended trip through Colorado, the Grand Canyon, Arizona, and Utah, before leaving the US entirely and heading through Canada to Jasper and Banff.

“At that point, we ran out of money,” said Murphy. “So we drove 36 hours straight through, and I started a job the next week at MSA Professional Services in Baraboo.”

The job was well-timed; following the highly publicized environmental disaster in which the Cuyahoga River outside Cleveland caught fire, the nation was unprecedentedly ready to invest in clean water.

“Suddenly, after years of not getting funding for environmental projects, money started flowing through from the EPA,” said Murphy. “So I started designing wastewater treatment facilities and water systems all over Northern Illinois and Wisconsin; designing utilities for subdivisions, laying out the streets, starting an industrial water treatment plant for a canning company in Reedsburg.”

Murphy would go on to work with MSA for an astonishing 39 years, helping expand the company from a single office employing 15 people in Baraboo, to 15 offices throughout the upper Midwest employing approximately three hundred engineers, architects, planners, funding experts and environmental scientists, many of whom had themselves graduated from UW-Platteville. “I truly believe that UW-Platteville set me up for success,” said Murphy. “Not only the formal education, but the social interaction that I had on campus, and being the leader in a bunch of groups, all those things contributed.” Eager to give back to the place that had helped guide not only his career, but the careers of so many other MSA employees, Murphy organized a fundraising drive among the Pioneers at the company, convincing the board to match donations 2 to 1 and eventually raising $50,000 to sponsor a study area within the College of EMS. After a 10-year presidency of MSA, Murphy retired as Chairman of the Board in 2013, an occasion made vastly more meaningful by the surprise his company had organized for him.

“I worked right up to the last minute, nearly got to my own retirement party late, and they surprised me. They were purchasing a classroom in the new engineering building, for 100,000 dollars, in my name. And that was pretty special,” said Murphy. “I would not have been the success I was without the support and the education I got at Platteville.

But Murphy wasn’t done. “With all that behind me, I thought it was really important for me to give back. I thought back to my parents; they sacrificed a lot to send me and my brother to Platteville. I didn’t know it at the time, but my dad gave up bowling to help with my tuition and room and board, and I worked three jobs to get through school. I didn’t think I struggled—I was having fun—but it was a lot of work, and as I thought back on my parents and what they went through, and I thought, it’s time for me to give a hand back, not just to the students, but to the parents who are supporting them.”

He, together with wife Ginny Bowar, formed the David Murphy and Virginia Bowar Scholarship, a fund which supports civil and environmental engineering students at Platteville—students like Jack Wasechek, a junior from Prairie Du Chien who wants to use his degree to address water quality and the reclamation of polluted sites.

“It’s a pretty fulfilling major,” said Wasechek. Receiving the scholarship has given him much more breathing room to focus on studying. “It's given me a lot more flexibility with my time. I don't have to worry about working and can focus on keeping my GPA up.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by recipient Brady Rufenacht, who has just finished his freshman year, but who has already landed an internship with Westbrook Associated Engineers, Inc., in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Much like Murphy, Rufenacht comes from small-town Wisconsin, and loves the opportunity Platteville gives to enjoy the great outdoors.

While being a full-time student I am also on the Platteville Bass Fishing Team,” said Rufenacht. “We have the opportunity to travel across the country competing in bass fishing tournaments against other collegiate teams.”

Which, as it turns out, aligns perfectly with the vision Dave Murphy had for his scholarship. When asked what advice he would give to any young engineering student just starting out with their career, he pauses and gives the question some real thought before responding. “I would say, find something that you love doing, and have a balance in your life between, work, relationships, and hopefully outdoor activities. I would encourage everyone to get out there—as much as possible. I mean … that’s been my life. It’s been doing outdoor activities, from hunting and fishing, to biking and skiing, to kayaking and backpacking. I made a point of making time for those outdoor pursuits, and not to be consumed by one area of your life. I’m just hoping that I can help these students pursue their dream in civil engineering and kickstart their career.”

With the help of the David Murphy and Virginia Bowar Scholarship, both Wasechek and Rufenacht, as well as countless future recipients, are well on their way to a career—and a life—full of adventure.