Farewell to Elke

Elke and Neil Christmas 2005 copyIt will take some time to get used to Elke being gone.  No, she didn’t die, she just moved back to Germany to recover from the death of her beloved husband Neil and to be with her aging parents.  Not only do we miss her personally, we also miss her professionally.


Professional is the word for Elke Ney Murphy.  (So is sweet, sincere, and compassionate!)  For almost fourteen years, she has been one of the visible Managing Directors at Harbin.  It was she that sat in the Main Office and oversaw reception and guest services, as well as outreach to the public.  She had an impact on our history.  During her time Harbin morphed from an amateur operation to a world-known healing and retreat center, yet still maintaining its uniquely alternative character.  


Elke had been traveling the world when she arrived at Harbin as a guest twenty years ago, in August of 1993.  Back then Harbin had a work-exchange program and she worked in the Garden with Prem.  In October  the same year she returned to Harbin – this time to stay.  “I did not come to live in the United States, but in Harbin; the community, the waters and the beautiful nature were drawing me.”  


“I was glad to be accepted, and just wanted to contribute to this wonderful place.”  After one and a half years in housekeeping, and serving part time as a massage practitioner on staff, Elke got involved as a volunteer with organizing classes for candidates.  She also had a wonderfully romantic courtship with Managing Director Neil Murphy, and in March of 1995, at the Solstice, they were married.  In memorable Harbin style, the couple invited everyone at Harbin to their fabulously elegant wedding in the Conference Center.


Now thoroughly committed to being here, Elke threw herself body and soul into anything where she could make a difference.  And make a difference she did.  In 1995, there was a temporary manager, Grace Jones, in what would eventually become the Health Services Department.  Grace had been in the job for a couple of months when she handed a cardboard box of files to Elke – “She’s all yours, Baby!”  So without any training and no office, Elke took over massage management.  “I worked out of our home on Shady Lane.  Neil and I shared a one-room place, and I made one corner my office; meetings were held on the deck.  I even had a computer there (my first) – and learned Excel to make spread sheets.”  After a lot of cajoling, she finally got an office in the Redwood building.


During this time, Elke was also getting to know Harbin’s founder, Ishvara.  He and Ranjita (at the time) were on the testing committee for new therapists.  Her first impressions of him:  “He was smart and eccentric, and kept you on your toes.  His challenges were meant to expose your weaknesses and help you grow.  He could be abrupt, but he was usually right.  And over time, he got gentler.”


In approximately 2-1/2 years, Elke transformed massage.  The Redwood building was by now totally dedicated to bodywork, and is where guests and residents can get quiet massages near the pools from some 40 – 50 bodywork practitioners.


With such a stunning success in a previously impossible department, Elke was naturally asked to take over Reception.  Elke hesitated, seeing the job as going from the frying pan to the fire.  But Loren had left to take on the Workshops Department, Eme was poised to take on Health Services, and a new challenge was waiting.  Again, she was thrown in with no training (“I got a crash course from Steve”), into a department that she’d never worked in with different and unintegrated softwares at the Office and the Front Gate.


The first thing Elke did was get raises for the staff, treating them like professionals.  It paid off.  The Reception staff worked great as a team and the standard of service improved.  She remembers Ishpa and Janelle on the front desk , and Marilyn, Eric and Rosemary at the Gate (to mention just a few of the great staff).  The Managing Directors at that time, Sajjad, Julie, Neil Murphy and Steve, had offices in the same building.  Elke really liked her job and her team!  She hired Drew as her assistant and got the Reception software integrated with the Gate.  Within a year, the place was running smooth as hot spring water.


So of course, a few years later, Elke was invited to become a Managing Director.


Again, she hesitated.  Was she taking on too much?  That’s easy to do at Harbin, where the rule seems to be, “If you want something done, get a busy person to do it.”  When Neil Murphy quit to take over the Restaurant in 1999, and Loren declined the position, Elke Murphy became a Managing Director, in charge of electricity conservation among other tasks.  For two years, Elke was both Reception Manager and a Managing Director.  She’d been right – it was too much.  “Reception needs a full-time manager,” she said, and gave the job to her assistant Drew.


Her advice to her successor,  “Find a niche which you love and become good at it.  Then you can truly make a difference.”  For Elke, it was guest services:  “My goal was to lift our ‘service consciousness’ and still be authentic.”  She hired a guest services trainer, and now there is an ongoing, internal program in place.  Her responsibilities included marketing and PR – as well as researching alternative energy and conservation.


About energy conservation:  “We have over 40 different accounts, and we are constantly growing.  The highest usage is on Mainside, difficult to monitor.  I was in contact with many energy consultants.  We managed to make a difference in the office building by having thermostats and fans installed.  Most important is educating people to not waste energy.”


About alternative energy solutions:  “I had the place tested for solar.  That research proved disappointing.  We found that, since we’re in an East-facing horseshoe, there is no place that receives long enough sunlight to make a difference.  Solar needs a Southwest facing.  The best place is up high on the mountain at the Domes.”  Elke decided that something is better than nothing, and a trial array was put up near the warehouse.  Some years later, an array of solar panels was finally installed in the Domes parking lot.  “Solar was expensive at the time, so we kept it small to take advantage of a discount being offered.”  It is possible to extend it further up the mountain above the Domes, eventually.  For now, people are happy to be able to park their cars in its shade.


Hydro was not a feasible option.  “Not enough consistent pressure,” she says bluntly.  “What Harbin needs is more consciousness of consumption, that’s for sure.  It would be a good thing if someone took that on.”


Elke’s going to be a hard act to follow.  We still don’t know who her successor will be.  For whoever it is, Elke left some advice: 

  • “Sajjad is a good role model.  He knows how to prioritize. And he will take on whatever is needed: he becomes educated on the issue, looks at every angle (including consequences for the future), and weighs carefully any possible solution, before bringing the issue to the larger group for decision making. He sees the ‘big picture’.
  • “With power comes responsibility.  The more power you have, the smaller your ego needs to be. To me, working as a director is spiritual work.
  • “Forgive and forget and move on. There is the larger wisdom of the group and you need to respect each other. Everyone has qualities.
  • “Always do good. Coach people gently, help them to improve.
  • “Harbin is a soup bowl. We shouldn’t be isolated. Reach out to the larger community. Find out how others are doing it.
  • “The world is changing so fast – keep up with social media.”


“Community living is so important,”  she went on, “and needs to be thriving.  Harbin was intended as a transient community, but now residents want to stay.  The benefits of this are more stability in departments and higher quality of service.  Now the issue of aging needs to be addressed.  Maybe to think about a Living Facility of some sort.  Harbin could be a model.  All over the world, it’s an issue.”


Finally, Elke had some words to share about her own future.  “I don’t know what the future holds.  I’m grateful for having time to just be.”  At 89, her parents are still healthy but restricted in their activities.  “They are so glad to have me home.”


Elke says she misses us, too, and wishes Harbin all the best.  And she wants to assure us that for her,  “It’s all good.  I’m at the right place.”



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