This is the story of William E. Murray, a young attorney from South Carolina. Born and bred in Charleston, he graduated from USC’s School of Law and then went to Harvard to earn a master’s degree in tax law. Right out of Harvard in the early 1950s, he was hired by a Manhattan law firm that had many famous clients.
Murray, who would eventually return to South Carolina and become a benefactor to USC, MUSC, SCETV and many other organizations, told the story of how he arrived at work one day early in his tenure and was summoned to his boss’s office, where he was told to go home, put on his best suit (Murray had only one, and he was wearing it at the time) and board a plane to Washington.
It seemed that Murray, who had recently learned up-to-the-minute property tax laws at Harvard, was to provide tax advice to the firm’s most famous client. In less than two hours, he was ushered into the Oval Office, where he came face to face with President Dwight Eisenhower.
His first impression was that the president was much taller than he had expected. Murray remembered that President Eisenhower came toward him, offering a warm handshake to put him at ease. Since Murray’s firm represented the president as his personal attorney, the president’s question concerned his recent acquisition of a farm and surrounding acres in Gettysburg, Pa. Specifically, he wanted to know about the sort of taxes he should expect to pay on the new property and any advice about deduction strategies.
After more than an hour, during which William gave the president every bit of knowledge and strategy he had about property tax law, Eisenhower asked only one question: Could an average middle-class American who owned property receive the same kind of tax advice that he had just received?
No, Murray answered, most Americans could not afford his law firm’s expertise, and so could not easily receive information about the tax breaks and strategies that he had just spent the past hour outlining.
President Eisenhower then extended his hand to young Murray, thanked him for coming, and said he could not in good conscience take advantage of money-saving tax breaks that average citizens themselves could not acquire.
He asked Murray to prepare property tax returns for him that did not contain any fancy deductions or little-known tax loopholes.
President Eisenhower’s final comment was that he wanted to pay a fair tax like citizens of our country would be expected to pay.
Murray did exactly as the president asked, and his adventure ended.
In the current political climate, it’s comforting to remember a time in our country’s history when leaders made personal decisions quietly, and did the right thing just because it was the right thing to do.
Ms. Beasley is a Columbia educator; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.