A Conversation with Emma Murphy (part one)

Emma Murphy 01(part one of five)

As we continue our series of interviews for Women’s History Month, we spend time this week with Emma Murphy, a park guide at Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Greenville, Tennessee. Emma has a bachelor’s degree in history/Civil War studies from Gettysburg College, and a master’s degree in public history from the University of West Georgia. Before landing her full-time gig at Andrew Johnson, she worked as a seasonal historian/ranger at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Richmond National Battlefield, and Gettysburg National Military Park.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Chris Mackowski: How did you end up at Andrew Johnson? 

Emma Murphy: I wish I could say that it was because I had a love and passion for the president who came after Lincoln and everything with Reconstruction, but it actually was by chance. It was from the Pathways database that the NPS has on their employee website. If you are a student and you are part of the Pathways program, you put your information in, and when you’re going to be graduating—either from undergrad if you’re lucky enough to get into the system when you’re still in college, or when you get your degree if you are in grad school. I put in extra details about my thesis topic and my field of studies.

Andrew Johnson is the only site that directly contacted my supervisor at Gettysburg, Christopher Gwinn. They wanted to make sure they had a candidate that would not only like to work at a site like this, but also had a career goal—that the NPS wouldn’t be just a job, but a passion and something they want to succeed in and continue on in. They asked about me, and I hadn’t heard anything in while, so I got kind of nervous because I wanted a job with the NPS so badly that I actually ended up putting on my big girl pants and calling the chief of interpretation here.

So that’s how I landed at Andrew Johnson. It was very much by chance, but I feel very fortunate and lucky to have gotten a site that is in my field of study, Reconstruction and Civil War memory. A lot of first-time positions that my other friends and co-workers had—they usually had to sacrifice a GS level [general schedule level—the pay scale of Federal government employees] or a job that they wanted at a certain park or theme at a park to get in where there’s an opening, which is usually a spot that’s out in the middle of nowhere, doesn’t have many visitors, or doesn’t have a lot to do with interpretation. I’m really lucky, and I do not take this job for granted, because I know that it could’ve been 8 hours a day in a booth, collecting fees. I think I would’ve jumped out the window after week one.

Here, I don’t have to worry about just being the person that collects money or who sits at the front desk all day. I get to design programs and try something new. They’re redoing their interpretive planning, so they wanted someone that had fresh eyes—not only fresh eyes out of masters of public history, but also fresh eyes that come from a massive park that does a lot of interpretation. They’re trying to revamp their interpretive plan and programming, so they wanted some of that experience while also having someone who has the knowledge base.

They asked me in my interview if I had any knowledge of Andrew Johnson; I did of his presidency and the aftermath of his presidency and his legacy throughout Reconstruction and reconciliation, but not much of him personally. But they already had so much on him personally that they wanted someone who knew about Reconstruction and the historical context of the time period, so that kind of hit the nail on the head. That’s a benefit of coming in fresh.

CM: I want to talk to you about Andrew Johnson in a second, but first, I want to circle back to something you said about being “in the system” for the Park Service. It seems to me a lot of people on the outside see the Park Service as this big, iconic entity, with the Smoky the Bear hats, but when you see how the sausage is made, it is a government bureaucracy. How is that to reconcile those extremes?

EM: It’s very difficult. It’s also very difficult to stay positive. There are a lot of people I know that have left the Park Service because they basically can’t wait any longer. From when I started in 2012 to now, it’s become increasingly, excruciatingly difficult to get in. There are a lot of sacrifices you have to make. If I had just gone into the private sector with a master’s degree and a lot of experience at different parks and programs, I probably would have been paid a little bit more and also had a career that isn’t reliant on whether the government had a budget or not. So it’s something you do have to renegotiate with what you want in your future. Also, you have to be willing to uproot and move anywhere. It is something you have to reconcile personally, but also career-wise.

The love of the job itself makes it bearable. It’s not just a job where, every time you put on your Smokey the Bear hat on, you don’t think about it. Of course you do! Every time I put my hat on, I think that I look awesome and like a superhero. [She laughs] Even if the uniform isn’t flattering [she laughs again], I still feel like I have this powerful presence even just walking in and opening the visitor center. That’s something that is empowering, and that alone is enough to overcome the other bureaucratic problems that you can face being a federal employee.

It is kind of scary if there’s a shutdown. You don’t know when you’re going to get paid or go back to work, and that is something that is kind of terrifying, especially in real life where you have student loan payments and bills to pay. I’m not there yet, but some people have a family to support. If I had a husband and a kid I was trying to support as the main breadwinner for a couple years, if I’m not able to go to work, that’s going to put a financial strain, so it is something you have to negotiate with yourself and people around you.

My family has understood since I started—and came to my first program at Chancellorsville—that this is what I want to do. I’ve wanted to be in the history field talking to people before I even realized the Park Service did anything like this. So I’ve always wanted to be in something like this and understood the sacrifices that might have to be made—like this year for Thanksgiving, my family is coming up here because, as a Federal employee, I work all the way up until Thanksgiving Day. I can’t travel very much, but they can, so they’re coming up here from Illinois.

In the end, the question you have to ask yourself is if it’s worth it. The fact that I burst into tears when this park called and offered me a permanent position shows, to me, that it’s definitely worth it. It’s a long process, and it’s very difficult to try and stay positive, but if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. If you know that’s what you really want to do, you just have to keep fighting through the bureaucracy, and that’s what I did. I’m not going to say that it’s for everybody, because it is soul-sucking at times. There are no answers, and you don’t know what’s going to come next, and it’s terrifying, but that spark and that fire that is burning under my butt that tells me to keep going—that doesn’t go away. I knew I couldn’t reconcile with myself if I didn’t try with the Park Service, and that was worth battling it out with the red tape.

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In tomorrow’s segment of the interview, Chris and Emma talk more about the process she went through to get her first permanent position in the Park Service. “I fully admit that you can fall in love with the park and want to stay there because you love it so much,” she says, “and your goal is to be there for the rest of your career—but that’s not how the park service is designed.”