He never meets a stranger. He has a great sense of humor. He really doesn’t like talking about the crayon and broken light incident (seriously, don’t mention it). He loves his neighbors at Generations and his friends at the Sarah Dinsmore Center. He wants to work at a job in town. His most prized possession is his Red Bay High School class ring. He is probably one of Red Bay’s biggest treasures. He is Murl Pendegraph. His life – and the community’s care for him – is a love story.
Murl leads quite a full and active life, spending his days in activities with friends at the Sarah Dinsmore Center and evenings at Generations of Red Bay. Even there he’s active, often helping Dr. Raynard Fabianke on his rounds as Fabianke visits other residents of the nursing home.
“I help him. I take his book,” Murl said.
Considering doctors initially didn’t expect him to live long after birth or, if he did, to ever be able to do anything for himself, that Murl is doing this at 50 years old is quite a story. So, too, is the way the community has shown him and his family love all these years.
Discussing it is almost more than his sister, Dianne Pendegraph, can do without corralling her emotions – and that’s a tall order.
Dianne and Murl both share 1968 as their birth year. She was born in January; he was born in December. Their births, though, were vastly different. When Murl was born his umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck several times, cutting off oxygen and resulting in brain damage. Doctors in Birmingham didn’t have much hope for him, and tried to prepare his family the best they could.
“That was really, really difficult for my mother,” Dianne said. “But Murl just showed so much improvement through the years. (The doctors) couldn’t believe it.”
So began the story of a community rallying around Murl. Of the many challenges he faced early, Murl wasn’t growing well or showing much improvement as he couldn’t keep food down. He also seemed to be in constant pain. A friend of Murl’s mother, Wanda, recommended she take him to see Red Bay’s Bob Burleson, who was a chiropractor. She took the advice.
“Mom told Bob about Murl. He said people don’t realize the trauma babies go through at childbirth, especially when they weigh a lot,” Dianne said. “He said he thought he could help Murl, so Momma took him. The very first night after she took him she said she could lay him in any position and he didn’t scream. She said that was the first thing she noticed. Bob explained about the spine and said he thought he could help him if she would bring him back.”
Bob wanted to see Murl three times a week. Wanda was dejected; she knew how much Murl needed the treatment. She also knew she couldn’t afford it. That, however, would prove to not be an issue with Bob.
“He said, ‘You will never have to pay me,’” Dianne said through tears and a breaking voice. “The kindness of this town started way back then.”
Not only did the chiropractic care help with pain, he also began to be able to hold down food as well and started to grow. By age seven Murl was finally able to walk. Then, at age 8, Murl achieved another great milestone: He was able to start school at Red Bay.
“When Murl went to Red Bay School, that was such a huge change for him,” Dianne said. “He got to be around a lot of people and he had a lot of friends. That was a big thing for him; he got to have a social life.”
When you talk with Murl one thing really stands out very quickly: He remembers names and people very well. He remembers the names of his teachers at the school including his first teachers, Molene Clark and Laura Ozbirn. He says Mrs. Scott was his favorite.
Murl attended school through age 21. He graduated with the Red Bay High School Class of 1991, becoming the first person in his special education class to graduate. Remembering the account brings tears to Dianne’s eyes again.
“When he graduated he got a standing ovation from everyone in that gym; it was just really an awesome thing,” Dianne said. “I remember how excited my mom was about that.”
That was the culmination of a year that saw his fellow class members express their love for him.
“The senior class in 1991 was so nice. He was voted Best All-Around in the senior class, which is a really big honor,” Dianne said. “It says so much I feel like, and my mother did, for the people at the school and in this town who were always so good to Murl. For his senior class to have voted him Best All-Around, that was just such an honor.”
Then there was the prom. Murl was quite popular there, too.
“I took him to the prom that year, his senior year, and I could hardly dance with him because there were so many girls dancing with him.”
Murl smiled and laughed as Dianne told the story, recalling the memory. He quite enjoyed all the dances.
One of his prized possessions that he wears every day is his high school class ring. “His class ring says 1987 because that’s the class he would have finished with, but he was allowed to go until he was 21,” Dianne said. “He’s always been so particular and happy about his class ring.”
The ring has a guitar engraved on one side, paying homage to his love of music then as well as now.
“If they would let a 50-year-old go to Red Bay School, you would still go, wouldn’t you?” Dianne asked.
“Yes,” he answered without hesitation.
“It doesn’t matter how much time has gone by, he always talks about his classroom there; he had so much fun,” Dianne said.
Murl will be adding to his prom memories in 2019 when he escorts his niece, Grace, Dianne’s daughter, to her senior prom. Grace was five years old when Murl went to live with Dianne.
“They had bedrooms next to each other until she was 14, so you can imagine lots of sharing toys, fighting over who did what or to whom,” Dianne said. “All of Grace’s friends grew up calling him Uncle Murl just like she did. Grace is a senior this year and she has asked for her Uncle Murl to be the person who walks her out at prom during senior lead out.”
No doubt there will be more dancing, too.
Blessings, no disguise
For Murl and his family, the opening of the Sarah Dinsmore Center in Red Bay couldn’t have come at a better time. The center, Dianne said, is a major blessing to Murl and others who depend on the center’s services.
“That is something we were so grateful for,” Dianne said. “I remember years before the Dinsmore Center opened there were meetings I would go to with my mother in the Shoals, in Russellville, with other parents trying to get something like that in this area. God just blessed Murl in that it opened in 1992 and he graduated in 1991. It was such a Godsend because he didn’t have that time at home where a lot of people did and didn’t have that daily activity. He went several years at the Dinsmore center without missing a day.”
The Sarah Dinsmore Center in Red Bay is a day habilitation facility on Golden Road that serves mentally handicapped residents from throughout the area. Murl said his favorite activity at the center is playing ball. His friends there have become family. One name from the center leaps out to him when asked who is precious to him.
“Miss Peggy,” he said, referring to longtime employee Peggy Vick.
Murl hasn’t had to look far to find friends and family anywhere. Part of that comes from his outgoing personality. He just doesn’t meet strangers.
“He’s just always been blessed in this town,” Dianne said. “Looking through (a previous edition of Baymont Magazine) earlier he saw Ronald Thorn. Ronald has always been super nice to Murl. But he’s just one of many.”
Dianne’s husband’s family has taken Murl in and treated him like a grandson, as one of their own. Other extended family members have done the same. For Dianne’s son, Brock Raper, Murl is more than an uncle. Brock’s love for Murl is much more akin to that of a brother.
“Brock and Laken (Laken Elliott Raper, Brock’s wife) are so good with Murl. They spend so much time with him. Brock takes him everywhere,” Dianne said. “Laken and her family, especially her grandparents, Jack and Brenda Elliott, and Traci, her dad, have been amazing,” Dianne said.
Laken was headed to Florida in 2018 to visit with her father, and the idea sprang forth to take Murl on a trip to the beach in Tampa, a place he had never been before.
“It was supposed to be a surprise, but Murl is very smart. We’ve never been able to get many surprises by him,” Dianne said. “They had been keeping it hush-hush, but he had been saying, ‘Brock and Laken take me to the beach,’ over and over. And they were panicking, telling him maybe another time. He knew, but they were really wanting to surprise him.”
When asked how he knew he was going to the beach, he was hesitant to speak.
“You really don’t want to give that secret away, do you?” I asked.
“No,” he said with a big grin spreading across his face.
Murl had a great time on the trip. He got to ride on an airplane, though he didn’t like having to run through the airport. “Laken said he started saying, ‘Laken make me have a heart attack,’” Dianne said.
Murl said the sand and the water were fine. He was more excited about what else happened there.
“I caught a fish,” he said. “It was big.”
As fun as Tampa was, Murl also has his sights set on seeing the other coast. Dianne’s son Chanler lives in Los Angeles, and Murl wants to visit there one day as well.
Every face a potential friend
Remember what I wrote earlier about Murl remembering names and faces? When Murl and Dianne arrived for our interview, though Murl probably hasn’t seen me in a while, he knew who I was immediately.
“Jimmie’s son?” he asked Dianne.
He knows my mother, Jimmie Lou Collum, as she was the program director for the Dinsmore Center for 17 years. As he and Dianne got ready to leave after the interview was over, Murl told me to tell my mother to come see him. This wasn’t just one of those things a person says to be nice. Murl genuinely meant it.
He has put that same spirit into work before, and that is something he would like to do more of: Work. He wants a job. He has experience. Piggly Wiggly manager Jason Vinson has brought Murl in to work as a greeter before, but that only served to whet Murl’s appetite for more.
“I want to work there (again) soon,” he said. He wants to be a grocery bagger and take groceries to peoples’ cars for them.
“We hope he can do that again sometime,” Dianne said. “He really loved doing that, telling everyone hello. I was up there a few weeks ago and Jason had a hat and shirt put back for him. He was pretty excited about that.”
That’s not the only place where Murl has found a welcome. He has also worked washing dishes at Brent and Lori Collum’s Forth Street Grill. They have a painting on the wall by the entrance that Murl made for them.
“That’s something he’s always wanted, to have a job,” Dianne said.
“There have just always been so many people in the community who have been so awesome to Murl and people from all through our years growing up who have reached out and been nice and made him feel so important.”
Love of music
For his 50th birthday Murl wanted to celebrate with his family by going to Champy’s Chicken in Muscle Shoals. It’s not necessarily the food that drew him, though. When their family treated Dianne to a 50th birthday party there, Murl got a taste of the live music on stage – and he loved it. Remember, his school class ring, dating back to 1991, has a guitar etched into it. This is a long-lasting love.
When he was in Florida he went to a concert there where he saw Miranda Lambert live. He likes country music, both the old traditional country and the new as well. His favorite artists are George Jones and Tammy Wynette. He likes gospel music, too. He is very quick to say he does not like rap. At all.
“He really likes in the car to hear the old stuff, but if there is something new that’s sort of got that throwback to the old country sound, he really likes that,” Dianne said. “Every year the Dinsmore Center clients would go to the Helen Keller Festival. He loves that especially because of the music. He’s one of the first in line to get autographs and before it’s over he’s already talking about coming back next year.”
Music is a big part of Murl’s life. Dianne said he loves playing the three guitars he owns. One was given to him by his mother and father when he was around 14. Billy Boyd gave him another. He also has a banjo.
“He loves to sing,” Dianne said. “He actually sang Amazing Grace at our mother’s funeral. There wasn’t a dry eye in there when he started singing.”
He loves going to church and also attending church services at Generations hosted by area churches. On Thursday night they sometimes have singings.
“One Thursday I went to see him they said he’s probably in the dining room listening to music, but when I got in there he was up there singing with the lady and man while everyone else was watching and listening!” Dianne said.
As this interview was held in the fall of 2018, Murl was looking ahead to both his birthday and his favorite holiday: Christmas. There’s a simple reason he likes it so much.
“Santa Claus comes.”
“Is he good to you?” Dianne asked.
“Yes,” he said.
He said he likes the gifts, but what was unspoken – but clear – was he looks forward to the time spent with family. He stays with Dianne on Christmas Eve night. Brock stays with them, too. Brock hasn’t missed a Christmas staying with them with Murl.
After Christmas presents are opened, Murl likes to go eat at “Grandma’s,” which is Marvalene Shewbart. Dianne said once gifts are opened, his focus turns to going to Shewbart’s home.
“He can’t wait to go to Mamaw’s.”