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Rep. Murtha's widow skirts politics for civic pursuits

| Saturday, March 22, 2014, 4:31 p.m.
Joyce Murtha, wife of the late U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha.

In the four years since her husband's death, Joyce Murtha has distanced herself from the political arena she was part of for nearly 40 years.

“I'd had enough of the politics and the controversy and decided to move on,” she said.

She rejected urgings to seek the Democratic nomination to finish the term of Rep. John Murtha, saying it was too soon after his Feb. 8, 2010, death as a result of complications from gall bladder surgery.

And she wasn't interested in a 24-7 job.

“His idea of a vacation was to work in the office, or wherever he had to go in the morning, and then sit on the patio at night,” she said of her husband of more than 54 years.

“But half the time he was on the phone. ... I wasn't willing to devote my life to that.”

She's keeping mum on this year's election.

“I find I'm more effective with the organizations I work with if I'm not political,” she said.

At 79, she has made it her mission to preserve ther husband's legacy.

“One of my goals was to make sure that he and all the good things he did are remembered,” she said.

Joyce Murtha devotes her time to issues and organizations for which she and her late husband shared a passion — education, public service, health care, the Girl Scouts and her beloved Johnstown Symphony. The people of Johnstown call her their “first lady.”

She spends a week or so each month in Washington, meeting with other congressional wives or working on causes. She plans to keep to that schedule “as long as I don't mind the drive,” she said.

She has learned to pace herself since her husband's death.

“It was a full-time job keeping up with him,” she said.

She balances her time among the John P. Murtha Cancer Center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.; the Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center at Windber Medical Center in Somerset County; Johnstown's Women's Help Center for battered women and families; the Girl Scouts, with which she has been involved for 50 years; and the Johnstown Symphony.

Groundbreaking is expected in October for the John P. Murtha Center for Public Service at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, and the USS John P. Murtha likely will be christened in 2015 by their daughter, Donna Murtha.

Health care advocate

John Murtha's 37 years in the House of Representatives made him the longest-serving congressman in Pennsylvania history. The former Marine was an ardent supporter of military spending and a leading voice on military policy.

But health care was closest to his heart, his wife said.

His interest started in the 1980s when a group of military wives told him they could not get mammograms at military hospitals, his wife said.

“We have to change that,” was his reply.

Over the years, he “put over $2.3 billion into breast cancer research” and helped secure millions more for research of other types of cancer, she said.

In a 2009 interview with the Tribune-Review, Murtha made no apology for inserting into bills hundreds of millions of dollars for projects in his district. Earmarks helped fund sewer and water projects, diabetes and cancer research and diabetes clinics, among other things. “I'm good at it, I have to admit. ... I make damn sure that we take care of our district,” he said.

Every few weeks, Joyce Murtha spends time with patients at the Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center.

“She had a lot of vision about making the center warm and comforting. ... The patients love her visits,” said Patty Felton, its director.

The Windber Research Institute, another facility for which her husband helped win funding, has collected more than 70,000 breast tissue samples to try to find the cause of breast cancer.

Art of compromise

She's excited about the opening of the John P. Murtha Center for Public Service at Pitt-Johnstown because it will “promote service to the community, the country through politics, and the military.”

Her husband “loved the House; he felt it was the closest thing to the people,” she said.

He often said: “Politics is the art of compromise. We all come from different parts of the country representing people with different beliefs, so if we don't compromise, we will get nothing done.”

Craig Smith is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media.

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