Dennis Murphey, retired chief environmental officer for Kansas City, MO, led the city’s effort to fight climate change for 13 years, putting Kansas City on the map for its 40-percent reduction in municipal greenhouse gas emissions. He died of COVID-19 on October 27.
Murphey joined the city in 2006 and retired in June 2019. During his tenure, Kansas City experienced a paradigm shift that positioned environmental considerations as an integral part of all city planning, policy and activities.
“I am saddened to learn of the passing of our recently retired Chief Environmental Officer, Dennis Murphey,” said Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas. “Mr. Murphey advised on all projects and policies that could build a more sustainable and prepared Kansas City. His climate action plan has been a model for Kansas City and communities around our country.”
Beginning with the city’s Climate Protection Plan in 2008, Murphey led the effort to identify potential climate risks to the region and recommend actions, many of which have been implemented. He developed public and private partnerships that helped the city become a national leader in climate efforts.
“As a direct result of the vision and efforts of Dennis Murphey, Kansas City is at the forefront of sustainable environmental policy and actions,” said former Kansas City Mayor Sly James, who worked with Murphey for eight years. “Long before others, Dennis chartered an environmental plan that was unique for local governments. I recall that whenever I came back from meetings of other mayors telling Dennis what other cities were doing, he’d say something like, ‘That’s a good idea. We’ve been doing that the last five years.’ He was ahead of his time and, unfortunately, he is lost to us, when we need him most — he has gone home. Rest easy buddy.”
Bob Berkebile, co-chair of the Kansas City, MO Environmental Management Commission (EMC) and principal emeritus with BNIM, recalls the early days when Mayor Kay Barnes signed the U.S Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement in 2006. When she created the Mayor’s Climate Protection Steering Committee, local influencers wanted the committee to be comprised of environmental experts. But Murphey wanted to build a climate plan that came from a more diverse community, including business, labor, government, utilities, citizens and environmentalists. Berkebile said Murphey prevailed, eventually creating a plan that was built from a broad cross section of more than 80 community leaders. He said it took longer to develop a climate policy, but in the process, the community was educated. By the time the Climate Protection Plan was presented to the City Council for approval, Berkebile said the community, including previous opponents, were there to support the initiative.
“Dennis’ influence on our community and many of us personally was profound,” Berkebile said. “His unique skill was that he truly cared, and he took the time and did the hard work to be knowledgeable about the issues, to LISTEN to all the stakeholders, take time to understand their concerns, build relationships and chart a course with them to create a vibrant, healthy, resilient future. At his core, he was a life-long learner, educator and collaborator with inexhaustible patience.”
Through a collaboration with KCP&L, now Evergy, Murphey led the city in moving toward a goal of 100-percent renewable electric energy for municipal operations by 2022. The city now has 96 electric vehicle (EV) charging stations on city property through Evergy’s Clean Charge Network. Energy-efficiency efforts have been implemented in many municipal buildings and 60 solar panel arrays have been installed on rooftops of 58 city-owned buildings.
“It was heartbreaking to hear of Dennis’ recent passing,” said Chuck Caisley, Evergy chief customer officer. “Many people at Evergy, including myself, worked with Dennis on a wide range of issues including the expansion and implementation of programs to increase energy efficiency and the utilization of renewable resources. He was well respected and always willing to have a dialogue to progress Kansas City and the metro area forward to a cleaner tomorrow. His legacy will continue to be felt for decades to come and should be held up as an example on how to bring stakeholders together to achieve success.”
Additionally, 13 municipal buildings have achieved silver Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification and seven have achieved the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) gold level.
“I was lucky to have worked with Dennis for several years,” said Jennifer Gunby, USGBC state and local advocacy manager. “He has such a kind heart and an easy going wisdom. He was able to build consensus from diverse groups just through authentic conversations. It was artful to watch unfold first hand. His stories, his professional advice, just getting to hear commentary on the state of the world, it will all be dearly missed.”
Working with Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), Murphey was instrumental in the expansion of climate protection planning in the region. In partnership with Johnson County, the Kansas City region collaborated on creating an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions. This effort is being used by municipalities and private business to determine how best to reduce emissions in the region.
“When we finished the Climate Protection Plan more than 10 years ago, Dennis spoke about what an honor he considered it to be to shepherd that plan to conclusion. But, the honor was ours to work with him on such important issues,” said Tom Jacobs, MARC environmental program director. “Then, Dennis would provide detailed progress reports documenting one good thing after the next – reflecting, of course, his deep skill, care and understanding. It’s clear that Dennis helped create a foundation for future progress, and I’m certain that he would have every confidence in our ability to go even further. I miss Dennis. We lost him sooner than we should have. He inspires the best in all of us.”
Under Murphey’s leadership, Kansas City also partnered with Johnson County, MARC and Bridging The Gap to mitigate urban heat island effects with a substantial effort to plant trees. The White House, under President Barack Obama, and the U.S. Department of Energy designated the region one of 16 nationwide Climate Action Champions for its efforts.
“There is an African proverb for when someone has died: ‘a library just burned.’ In Dennis Murphey we have lost an extraordinarily important collection. He possessed rare and detailed knowledge of a range of environmental issues across the country and world, and he combined this with an acute grasp of American politics at the city, state and federal levels,” said Kristin Riott, executive director of Bridging The Gap. “We sorely needed him to help navigate the future which is suddenly upon us — when the effects of climate change are wreaking havoc on a daily basis, and we must build the political will to take strong action. Not only that, but he was the kindest, most generous and collegial of leaders. He is irreplaceable, but those of us lucky enough to work with him will take what he taught us and keep fighting the good fight.”
Murphey also led the city effort partnering with the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and other organizations to implement the City Energy Project. Kansas City was one of 10 cities nationwide to be selected for a three-year initiative of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Institute for Market Transformation. It was designed to promote energy-efficiency improvements in large commercial buildings that are responsible for more than 50 percent of all carbon emissions in Kansas City.
“I got to know Dennis while working with the City Energy Project,” said Julie Peterson, USGBC Central Plains director. “I was always struck by his measured tenacity, his patience and willingness to answer questions from anyone, the detail and thoroughness in which he answered those questions, and his kind and friendly demeanor. He was an incredibly dedicated public servant and was a mentor to so many of us. He will be terribly missed.”
Working with the Metropolitan Energy Center, Murphey received federal funding for the EnergyWorks KC initiative to create energy-efficiency programs for residential and commercial buildings. As part of this effort, the city educated residents on energy efficiency, adopted International Energy Conservation Codes (IECC) to advance energy benchmarking and established a PACE loan program for energy-efficiency efforts.
Before coming to Kansas City, Murphey was the U.S. Army’s administrator overseeing the destruction of sarin-filled rockets in Oregon. Previously, he worked as director of environmental management in Cincinnati, the director of the University of Kansas environmental education and training, and the director of the Bureau of Waste Management at the Kansas Department of Environment Management.
Murphey was known for consistently understanding the need for fresh thinking and for convening a diverse group of people to move the city forward on climate action planning. He was often cited as a mentor to city and environmental leaders throughout the country.
Here’s what others had to say about Murphey’s work and influence:
“Few people were as passionate about the environment and its connections to people and the economy as Dennis. Plus, he was a good guy — always friendly and approachable. Most people don’t know all the initiatives Dennis spearheaded or collaborated on for the city, this region and nationally in climate protection and sustainability. He worked with governments, utilities, corporations and the general public to make KC a better more livable city. So much was accomplished during his tenure and leadership, and much of these are not necessarily visible to citizens. His contributions were cut way too short.” Jerry Shechter, sustainability coordinator, KCMO Office of Environmental Quality
“Dennis was someone who believed not only in the work he was doing, but in the people doing the work. He was supportive and encouraging in a way that made you feel like not only were you the right person for the job, but the work you were doing was deeply important and impactful. His leadership moved Kansas City forward far beyond the years he took to do it and positioned the region in a leadership role both in the Midwest and nationally. The residents of the Kansas City region, individually and collectively, are better off for having Dennis Murphey working for us for as long as he did. I humbly acknowledge that it is now our turn to be those leaders and continue this work to the best of our abilities in the way Dennis believed that we could.” Amanda Graor, chief innovation officer, MARC
“A remarkable man. Kind and generous, but also willing to say no. He could not be wheedled. I tried a few times. He was involved in USDN from the beginning. I looked to him often for direction. I respected him very much. He was a teacher to all.” Julia Parzen, co-founder, Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN)
“Dennis was a tremendous leader in our community with a huge heart and sense of devotion to make the world a better place. I will always remember him smiling. He shared so much wisdom and made such a meaningful impact in Kansas City, the region and beyond. We miss Dennis and send our love to his family.” Sara Greenwood, principal, The Greenwood Consulting Group
“Dennis at his core was a mentor to many across the country and region in all things sustainability, but more importantly in how to bring people together to make difficult decisions. He was eminently kind, gracious, and calm in all his interactions. He gave of his time generously coming to the university year after year to speak with students, and he did this in many schools. He came to class rain or shine, and no matter how he was feeling. One winter he came to speak to a night class with a terrible, terrible cold which would have sent most to bed. He gave his presentation, then stayed late to talk with the long line of students who had so many questions. Many wanted to pursue sustainability as a career which he modeled, but didn’t know how, as the field didn’t really exist yet. Dennis led the way in defining these roles and always, without hesitation mentored young people and encouraged them toward success. His legacy is tremendous human capital! We deeply honor and miss him, his knowledge and grace. Caroline (Molly) Davis, assistant professor & director of Environmental Studies Program, University of Missouri-Kansas City and EMC commissioner
“When I started as the Sustainability Program Manager for Johnson County, Dennis was quick to welcome me and get me connected with sustainability leaders in the KC metro region. I could tell right away how respected Dennis was in the region and on the national stage. Through the years, I have had the pleasure of collaborating as a peer with Dennis on projects and strategies. We took road trips together to Iowa, Nebraska, and southern Missouri to soak up the knowledge of our peers in the Midwest. He was always generous about sharing what he knew, and humble enough to know that there was still so much he could learn from those around him. When he retired last year from KCMO, he wasted no time before getting engaged in the sustainability scene in Lawrence, where I am the sustainability director. I knew I could count on him to show up with a quiet presence and be available to drop some knowledge when needed. I will miss our chats over hot chocolate and smoothies, where we commiserated over government inaction regarding things we know are urgent, joined forces to take action, and talked about the most important stuff like our kids and partners. Dennis, please know that your past actions are snowballing into undeniable transformative movements.” Jasmin Moore, sustainability director, Douglas County and city of Lawrence, KS
“Dennis was a gentleman and a gentle man. I’ll miss his kindness and thoughtfulness. I’ll miss the days of collaboration to bring a better and more sustainable vision to life in Kansas City. His steadfast leadership in carrying the mantle of sustainability for so many years will be remembered, especially by us lucky few who were privileged to work alongside him. My deepest condolences to his family. He was a treasure taken too soon.” Ryan T. Evans, business development executive, Entegrity Partners
“My heart goes out to his wife Margo, whom he retired to spend more time with, and his two children. I thank Dennis for all he did to keep our city safe for generations ahead.” Quinton Lucas, mayor, Kansas City, MO
Murphey is survived by his wife, Margo Murphey of Lawrence, KS and their children, Hayden Colleen Murphey and Colin Murphey. Burial services will be private. The family requests that those wanting to honor him continue his legacy of mentoring, helping others or sharing their expertise in a way that betters the world. Donations can also be made to the animal fostering program at Melissa’s Second Chances animal rescue in Shawnee, KS. Memories can be posted on Kudo Board, or in the Comment section below this story.