LOWELL -- Thomas Murphy would often take things from his home, like winter coats, to give to needy students at Lowell High School.

Murphy, a longtime LHS teacher and administrator, also would provide lunch money to students who did not have it, in addition to serving students through his other duties.

His wife, Helena, taught for many years, both in Tewksbury and later at the Morey School in Lowell. She once left the Murphys' Lowell home on a snowy Christmas Eve to bring a box-hockey game that was for her kids' to Tewksbury, because another child needed it more.

Kevin Murphy says his parents' service to others inspired his career and approach to life.

He says their lessons led him to devote himself to the less fortunate and to his community, and will guide him as he becomes city manager on Monday morning.

Murphy grew up on Canton Street in the Highlands. the youngest of five children born in six years. His three brothers and sister all still live in Lowell.

Kathy Akashian, Kevin's sister, calls him "a go-to guy." (She also calls Kevin her "sister" because she thought her mom would bring a home a girl when he was born.)

Garry Murphy says he admired how his brother cared for their dad in his old age. Their father would go to Kevin's law office frequently, until a short time before he died at age 96.

"Kevin made sure he had a place to go every day," said Garry Murphy. "He got him lunch and he got him home."

Murphy credits his Catholic upbringing and education with his desire to help others, though he does not talk about his faith much publicly.

Murphy was very active in Saint Margaret's parish in the Highlands in his youth, and still is. He attended Saint Margaret's School, was part of the last graduating class at Keith Academy, and received a liberal-arts degree from Boston College.

"The Jesuits taught us that if you are successful, you can't just hoard your success," Murphy said.

"You have to give back to society the fruits of your success, not just with contributions, but by helping disadvantaged people."

Murphy spends the most time with his wife, Ann, a former assistant school superintendent in Lowell. Murphy also is close with their son Kevin, who works for the athletic department at BC. Murphy has season tickets to the Celtics and goes to games with his son. The Murphys also frequently attend BC games.

The Murphys have lived for almost 30 years on Newbury Street, about a mile from his childhood home. Ann says when they were first home-hunting, she fancied a house in Chelmsford. That wasn't happening.

"I learned very early on he was not going anywhere else because he has this incredible love of and faith in the city," Ann said. "A lot of what he does and the decisions he makes revolve around that."

Law as compassion

Murphy said he decided to attend law school in the early 1980s because he thought becoming a lawyer was a way to assist people.

After graduating from Suffolk Law School in 1983, Murphy worked for the city as an assistant solicitor. He also opened his own general law practice, which after a few years in Lowell has been in Chelmsford ever since.

Murphy says the theory of the law practice has always been, "We are here to help people, no matter what they have done wrong."

Murphy's self-described hero, Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, defends a black man in a Southern community who was accused of raping a white woman.

"He stood up for an unpopular cause even though entire community was against him because it was the right thing to do," said Murphy, who also credits the book with inspiring his decision to become a lawyer.

Murphy is proud of his legal work assisting women going through what he terms "the travesty of divorce." It was much more challenging financially for women to divorce years ago than it is today, Murphy said, because at that time many more women were stay-at-home moms.

Brian Akashian, a nephew of Murphy's who has long worked in his law office, said Murphy's ability to solve problems has served him very well.

"One of the things about Kevin is he cuts through the minutiae and gets to the bottom line," said Akashian, who will be leading the office with Murphy leaving the practice. 

UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan, a friend since their law-school days, credited Murphy's success as an attorney to his high intellect.

"It is rare to have a lawyer who can effectively try cases, negotiate well, and have such a strong knowledge of so many aspects of the law," Meehan said.

Murphy's office wall bears a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt's "Man in the Arena" speech, which credits those who step into the arena of public service and derides armchair critics.

On a desk sits a plate with the faces of two prominent Catholics who made a mark in public service, Robert F. Kennedy and John F. Kennedy. Murphy, who said the plate was a gift, said he is especially a fan of RFK.

Murphy, a Democrat, decided to run for state representative in 1996.

"I was interpreting laws and representing clients who were having the laws enforced against them," Murphy said. "I thought to myself, 'Geesh, maybe I should start making these laws,' and which is when I decided to run for state representative."

Jack Silk, a close friend for more than 40 years, said when they are out to dinner, people often approach Murphy for help. Silk said his friend patiently listens and tries to assist everyone as best he can.

State Rep. Tom Golden, a Lowell Democrat, said Murphy has long been a passionate advocate for initiatives that will aid the city. He credits Murphy for his work to secure funding to ensure revitalization plans for the Jackson-Appleton-Middlesex streets (JAM area) and Acre neighborhood were completed.

"He pushed for those plans because he wanted to see neighborhoods transformed," said Golden. "When he wants to get something accomplished, he works hard to make sure it gets done."

A sense of civic duty

Murphy emphasized his love and passion for the city in his recent interview with the City Council for the city manager's job.

"I want to be the city manager of Lowell and nowhere else because of my passion," Murphy said then.

Councilors were impressed. Murphy was selected on March 31 by an 8-1 council vote on the first ballot.

His family and friends say his love for the city shows during daily walks around the Highlands neighborhood. Neighbors wave, drivers honk their horns.

Why does he do it?

"One, I think it is good exercise," Murphy says. "Two, it is a way for me to get my head together in the morning where I can assess what I need to do that day and how I'm going to achieve it. Then when I get back from the walk, I'm ready to go."

Murphy, who has a slender build, said he switched his walks from early evening to early morning when his dog, a rat terrier named Comet, died five years ago. He acknowledged he may have to walk at a different time, because there are many morning events as city manager.

Golf is another frequent pastime. Murphy has played a Thursday twilight round at Mt. Pleasant Golf Club for more than 30 years with the same group of close friends, with brother Garry filling in sometimes. They also play most Sundays when the weather is warm enough.

Murphy also loves working on his lawn. Ann Murphy says Kevin's nickname is "Waterman."

"We have left parties so he could come home and move the sprinklers," Ann says.

Ann and Kevin try to explore at least one new city a year, with plans later this year to visit Seattle and possibly get to Vancouver during the trip, she says.

But the city Murphy has always been most enamored by, Lowell, will be his main focus in the years to come.

"As a close friend, I was initially surprised he was fervent about pursuing the job as city manager," Silk said. "But I realized I should not be surprised because he has a dedication to serving his community. I think that was an influence his parents passed on to him as his civic duty and obligation."

Murphy has said he wants Lowell to become safer, so families feel comfortable in the neighborhoods and others will want to move to the Mill City. He supports the reinvigorated community-policing program and hiring more officers.

He has pledged to fully fund the schools in the aftermath of a multimillion-dollar net school spending shortfall that carried into the current fiscal year.

Murphy said as the son of educators and the husband of one, he will promote how the city is blessed to offer children the opportunity to go from kindergarten to a Ph.D. program in one community.

Both improved public safety and a strong education system will bolster economic-development efforts, says Murphy. He also sees UMass Lowell being a major driver of economic growth, and he wants the city to work to keep young entrepreneurs with innovative ideas in the city.

Murphy plans to work to keep the revitalization plan for the Hamilton Canal District moving forward and to push for the Ayers City Industrial Park Plan to be completed ahead of schedule.

He says his many ideas are all spurred by his desire to create a better city for all Lowell's residents.

"I'm really looking forward to helping out the families of Lowell that are so dear to me," Murphy said.

Follow Lyle Moran on Twitter and Tout @lylemoran.