Gene Murphy was headed to Nicaragua.
For a young urban planner in 1975 hoping to help reshape an earthquake-stricken city, it was a dream assignment. But before he packed his bags, an encounter with Islip Town planning commissioner Michael LoGrande changed the course of his career. "We'll show them!" LoGrande shouted, scrunching his face and jabbing his finger in the air.
The commissioner was incensed by a dismissive comment another planner had made about Islip.
On the contrary, LoGrande argued, his town was full of potential, with historic downtowns, diverse communities, expansive waterfront and a decommissioned psychiatric hospital ripe for redevelopment.
Struck by the commissioner's fire, Murphy turned down the Peace Corps assignment, and launched a 35-year career helping Islip Town reach that potential, and in so doing became one of the most respected planners on Long Island.
Murphy's career, which was celebrated last week on his retirement as Islip's planning commissioner, traces three decades of transformation.
His projects restored life to a seedy and largely vacant downtown Bay Shore, and reclaimed blighted Central Islip at the height of a crack epidemic. They created housing for first-time homeowners and brought reinvestment to struggling commercial corridors.
His efforts earned him national awards, and the respect and friendship of residents who sought help in making their neighborhoods better places. "The man is just so dedicated, so brilliant, so willing to help," said Nancy Manfredonia, a Central Islip civic leader who worked with Murphy on a nationally recognized affordable housing project. "Anything we needed, Gene was there."
Murphy, 60, grew up in Queens Village, the son of Irish immigrants. He earned a bachelor's degree in economics from the City University of New York, followed by a master's degree in urban planning and architecture from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1974. After stints in Virginia and the Suffolk County executive's office, Murphy came to Islip, where he overhauled the zoning code and wrote new master plans for virtually every hamlet in the town.
Some of his projects met fierce opposition, but former colleagues said he won over skeptics by bringing everyone to the table. Residents spoke out in public hearings against the density that proposed affordable housing and smart growth developments required. Murphy responded by bringing developers and opponents together to hash out compromises: money for parks, downtown beautification projects and road improvements.
"He is able to see beyond the myriad of details," said Tom Isles, Suffolk planning commissioner. " 'What are we trying to create here, and how do we do that?' "
Murphy said he is proudest of his projects in Central Islip, which in the early '90s was stricken with burned-out homes, an abandoned hospital, high unemployment and rampant crime.
And in the late '80s, he helped create College Woods, which, with 450 homes, became the largest suburban affordable housing development in the country.
Murphy moves to a consulting role - he will work for the town two days a week - as Islip negotiates with the developer of a proposed $4-billion mini-city on the grounds of Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Brentwood. He will be replaced by his former deputy, David Genaway.
Murphy said he is hopeful. "When you get everybody in a room and you work out a compromise," he said, "that's when good things happen."