2014 Process Automation Hall of Fame

2014's Inductees Took Very Different Paths to Our Process Automation Hall of Fame

By Paul Studebaker

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Murrill was born in St. Louis, but grew up in rural Mississippi where his mother had inherited three very rural acres. His father was blind and for the last 20 years of his working life sewed brooms for a living. Murrill was educated in Pocahontas, Miss., where the village school served a total of 17 students in grades K-12.

When public schools were consolidated by the county, his home was at the end of the longest school bus route in Hinds County. At age 15, he got a state chauffeur's license and drove the bus. "My mother didn't like it parked at the house, but she appreciated the $25 per month they gave me for driving it," Murrill says.

In high school, Murrill took four years of vocational agriculture, and his 400-pound Poland China sow won the Grand Championship at the Hinds County Livestock Show. He hoped to go to Mississippi State, but won a Naval ROTC scholarship that covered his entire expenses to go to Ole Miss, where he earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering with honors, was president of the School of Engineering and Battalion Commandant of the NROTC.

"The Navy, for me, was a way to get off the farm," Murrill says. "The ROTC offered really fine scholarships. They paid your way for four years—everything, totally—with a three-year active duty obligation. It was during the Korean War, and the draft was in effect, so I had to do something."

Upon his discharge in 1959, Murrill and his wife, Nancy, were married and moved to Lake Charles, La., where he joined Columbia Southern Chemical Co. as a process engineer. "It was interesting work, but I didn't want to do it for the rest of my life," Murrill says. "I looked at what my boss was doing and what his boss was doing, and decided to get a PhD." In 1960, he enrolled in graduate school at LSU, and six semesters and one summer session later, he had a master of science and a doctorate in chemical engineering with a minor in modern physics and a reading knowledge of French and German.

In 1963, Murrill became an assistant professor in LSU's Dept. of Chemical Engineering. Over the next six years, he was appointed to associate professor, professor and head of the department. He specialized in the use of digital computers in process control, authoring or co-authoring 11 textbooks and more than 70 research journal publications, and in the mid-1960s received a grant of more than $1 million dollars over several years from the U.S. Dept. of Defense to  create a center for digital automata at LSU.

"What I find alluring about the field is it's interesting and challenging, not dull," Murrill says. "Every day is a new challenge, and I like that. The most interesting applications are dynamic, not a plant that just sits there and operates at the same rate 365 days a year. Those are like the ships I was on in the Navy, always going along at 15 knots. The gauges never moved."

Having achieved excellence as a professor, Murrill moved on to administration. In 1969, he was appointed LSU's chief academic officer and number two administrative officer of the Baton Rouge campus. He was 35. His days in chemical engineering were ending. In 1972, his title was changed, though not his duties, and he became LSU's first provost. In 1974, he was named chancellor of LSU, and he served in that position until the end of 1980. During this era, more than 1 million square feet of academic space was added to the campus, the campus was air conditioned, a charter for a Phi Beta Kappa chapter was granted, LSU was named a Sea Grant University, and an increased emphasis on research and academic achievement was undertaken. Murrill was selected by Change magazine as one of the top 100 educators in the United States.

Having reached the top of a career in academic administration, Murrill retired from LSU in 1981 and moved on to corporate management, first as executive vice president of research for Ethyl Corp. He had started serving on various boards of directors, eventually including three NYSE companies, Foxboro, Tidewaters and Gulf States Utilities. In 1982, the CEO of Gulf States Utilities developed Lou Gehrig's disease. After a board meeting, the chairman called an executive meeting and asked Murrill to become chairman and CEO. Murrill says, "That brought my engineering career to a quick halt."

When Murrill took over at Gulf States, construction of its River Bend nuclear power plant was virtually stopped. The plant was 46% complete (on paper), and the $1.7 billion construction budget (not including interest costs) had all been spent. Paul raised the money to finish the plant, which was licensed in 1985, but its huge cost materially weakened the company. The stress and work load took a severe burden on Murrill's health. He kept his position as chairman but resigned the CEO position, and in 1988 he had heart angioplasty surgery.

During the latter part of the 1980s, Murrill shifted his career focus one more time, from full-time executive management to consulting and expanding his work as a board member for public corporations. A major part of his consulting work was for the Instrument Society of America (ISA) as editor for a series of books on instrumentation and process control. The series eventually totaled 27 books.

Murrill's additional major accomplishments include:

  • Serving on the boards of 27 SEC-regulated public corporations,
  • Serving from 1979 to 1997 as an advisor to the U.S. Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory,
  • Eight years on the board of trustees (two as chairman) of FMOL Health Systems, with hospital and health care facility assets totaling $789 million and including OLOL hospital,
  • In 2003, designation by InTech (the official magazine of the ISA) as one of the 50 persons most influential in advancing automation, instrumentation and control technologies,
  • Member of 13 honorary and professional societies and of numerous civic and public non-profit boards and commissions. He has received numerous awards, been selected for five halls of distinction and awarded two medals.

"My career sort of breaks down into four stages—a decade as a scholar, a decade as a university administrator, a decade as a corporate executive and a decade as a professional director," Murrill says. "I like processes that are always in a state of change—like batch processes—and especially finding the best path—not only getting there, but doing it the most efficient way and maintaining it once you get there.

"First you try to make it work without blowing up. Then you make it stable; then maximize the return on capital. I like applications more than hardware—what's happening, what needs to happen, the economic challenge. I always assumed the hardware will be there.

"I like doing different things. I've also had incredibly good luck."

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