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Los Altos native's memory endures through tributes

It’s been nearly a year since Laura Suzanne Murphy died in a traffic collision, but she will be on the minds of many of her college classmates this weekend as they honor the former Los Altos resident through donations made in her name.

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The Murphy family on the occasion of Laura Murphy’s 2015 college graduation.

As of last week, 84 of Murphy’s 602 classmates from Mount Holyoke College’s Class of 2015 had donated in her honor to a school fund at the South Hadley, Mass., campus. That number doesn’t include the contributions of this year’s graduating seniors, many of whom learned about Murphy’s legacy and chose to help, or the 2015 classmates expected to donate at the two-year reunion this weekend.

Alumni were inspired by a matching pledge from Murphy’s parents, longtime Los Altos residents Cindy and Patrick Murphy, said Beckie Markarian, associate director and marketing specialist with the Mount Holyoke Fund.

“I think it’s really motivated her classmates, who maybe weren’t thinking about donating or they upped their gift,” Markarian said. “It’s really a beautiful coming together of the community.”

Science-oriented explorer

The matching pledge is just one way the Murphy family has chosen to remember a beloved daughter whose many passions included science, outdoor exploration, field hockey and Girl Scouts.

“Everything she did, she did the best she could,” Cindy Murphy said. “No effort was ever too much for her to put into something. She was a great daughter.”

Murphy attended Almond, Egan Junior High and Los Altos High schools, from which she graduated in 2011 as a National Merit Scholar. She graduated cum laude from Mount Holyoke with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in Spanish in 2015. The following year, Murphy worked as a research assistant at UC Berkeley’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, studying magnetotactic bacteria while completing graduate school applications. Berkeley’s microbiology program accepted Murphy to its doctoral program, and she was set to begin working toward her doctorate last fall.

The accident

On the night of July 14, Murphy was driving east on State Road 4 from Berkeley on a three-part mission: meet up with her mom and sister Lisa at the family’s Dorrington cabin; volunteer as a backpacking trip leader with a Girl Scouts high adventure camp; and then embark on a solo trek of the John Muir Trail’s southern half.

By approximately 10:45 p.m., Murphy was in unincorporated Stanislaus County between Farmington and Telegraph City. Just west of the Rock Creek bridge, a woman driving a Honda Civic west on State Road 4 crossed the center line of the two-lane highway and struck Murphy’s Ford Focus, according to a California Highway Patrol report. The driver of the Civic, a 28-year-old married mother of one from Elk Grove, died at the scene. Her passenger, a 41-year-old Elk Grove woman, suffered lacerations to her head, a broken jaw and internal injuries. An air ambulance transported Murphy to Modesto’s Memorial Medical Center, where she died from her injuries two days later. All three women had been wearing seatbelts.

Weeks would pass before the Murphy family received the CHP report indicating the driver of the Honda was at fault; she had been drinking at a Darius Rucker concert in the nearby town of Murphys, and several witnesses reported seeing her car drift; within minutes of calling 911 to report the driver, one man watched the Civic strike Murphy’s car.

The Stanislaus County Coroner’s Office toxicology report revealed the Civic driver’s blood alcohol content was 0.19 at the time of the crash, Cindy Murphy said.

“I was absolutely tortured for those five weeks waiting to know what the cause of the accident was,” she said. “Thinking it was Laura’s fault was torturous. (But) she was doing what she was supposed to be doing, and it wasn’t her fault.”

An enduring legacy

Among the many tributes to Murphy is a painting her Mount Holyoke classmates and biology professor commissioned depicting Bacillus subtilis, the bacteria she studied for her thesis work. The painting will hang outside the lab where she spent many an hour conducting research. The university also retired her field hockey jersey number, 12, and Los Altos High field hockey coach Mary Donahue renamed the annual Coaches Award – which Laura received her senior year – the Murphy Award. It will go to the player who exemplifies perseverance and teamwork.

In addition to posthumous honors, Murphy’s memory will endure through the lives she saved by electing to donate her organs. By sharing her story, her family hopes they can save more lives from the dangers of drunken driving.

“I want people to think about this,” her mother said. “The thing is, you hear about this kind of thing all the time. You wouldn’t believe how many people I’ve met who have gone through it. It just changes your world.”

To donate to the Girl Scouts of Northern California’s Two Sentinels camp in Murphy’s name, visit www.gsnorcal.org/donate. Reference “Two Sentinels on behalf of Laura Murphy.”

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