UNIVERSITY PARK — Lt. Michael Murphy loved reading about the famous Spartan stand at Thermopylae.
His favorite book, “Gates of Fire,” chronicled the story of 300 soldiers who fought a vast Persian force to buy time for other defenders.
In 2005, Murphy stood his own ground. He and three other Navy SEALs fought outnumbered for hours on an Afghanistan hilltop. At one point, Murphy left cover to radio for help for his men, staying exposed despite several wounds. He eventually was killed.
Two years later, he became the first Penn State graduate to receive the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor. A brand new Navy destroyer bears his name.
Now the new Penn State Veterans Plaza, dedicated Friday, also pays tribute to Murphy.
The plaza’s curved wall is named after him. On the wall is the inscription “With it (your shield) or on it.” According to lore, Spartan mothers said it to their sons before battle.
A Spartan warrior, never without his shield, either came home alive carrying it or carried dead on it.
“The story of 300 fighters who died fighting to the last man for democracy in many ways shares a certain symmetry with this memorial on campus to our son Michael and to our Penn State brothers in arms,” Murphy’s father, Dan Murphy, said to a packed Schwab Auditorium.
“The Penn State class of 2011 gift of this memorial embodies the very spirit that was exhibited by those Spartans and by our son Michael and his SEAL team on that fateful day in Afghanistan in June of 2005.”
Michael Murphy’s mother, Maureen Murphy, also attended the ceremony. Both parents were introduced to standing ovations.
The plaza, designed by New York-based Ennead Architects LLP, also features a walkway encircling a lawn with a shield in the middle. Penn State President Rodney Erickson thanked the class of 2011, the architects and the plaza design review board for their work.
“Everybody brought something different to the table, and the result is a powerful symbol on our campus,” Erickson said. “The Penn State Veterans Plaza is a fitting tribute to all veterans, and it holds a prominent place on a main axis through campus. It’s a place to pause, rest, reflect and remember.”
Penn State alumnus and trustee Ryan McCombie, a Navy SEAL veteran, noted fewer than 3,500 people have received the Medal of Honor — 60 percent posthumously. Fewer than 100 are alive today, he said.
“Time and again, America has called its sons and daughters and sent them to the far corners of the world,” McCombie said. “And there, on the remote fields, on the distant seas and in the lonely skies, many of America’s finest paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
McCombie called the men and women of the armed forces “good people who make this country great.”
“America sleeps well tonight because our heroes like Lt. Michael Patrick Murphy and all our active duty veterans choose to protect our freedoms,” McCombie said. “It is fitting that we are here today to dedicate this plaza to recognize all of our veterans, to demonstrate publicly that their efforts will never be forgotten or taken for granted.”
Afterward, Old Main’s bell rang as people left Schwab. Bernie Wingert, a World War II Navy veteran and Penn Stater, stopped to reflect on the gift from his granddaughter’s class.
“I think it’s wonderful,” he said. Minutes earlier, Dan Murphy had expressed his gratitude.
“I can think of no better tribute to our son Michael or the veterans of Penn State than that memorial that’s out at Old Main,” he said. “I want to thank from the bottom of my heart, as Maureen does, the class of 2011 for this wonderful and inspiring gift.”
Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter @CRosenblumNews