Throughout the holiday week, YourObserver.com will be counting down the top 12 stories of 2010 (one from each month) from our Longboat, East County and Sarasota Observers. Check back each day for a reprinting — and any relevant updates — of the biggest news items of the year.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED July 15, 2010
Joel Murrill placed his hand on the door handle. Nervous excitement coursed through his body. He pulled the door open and stepped over the threshold. One step into his new office building; one step toward his new life.
Starting at a new company may not be a momentous occasion for many people, but for this man, it’s nothing short of miraculous.
Murrill, 54, has been homeless in Sarasota for two years, and on June 30 he began a new career.
If not for an incredible amount of good fortune and good timing and the help of a Sarasota police officer and a Selby Library security guard — strangers who quickly became friends — he may have never turned his life around.
Since 2008, Murrill was living on Sarasota’s streets, working day-labor jobs and making enough money to eat each day.
But he was not one of the many faces easily recognizable to downtown residents. His mug shot was not featured daily on the sheriff’s website, and he didn’t like to hang out at Five Points Park.
“A lot of people there with alcohol problems,” he says and then motions to his head. “A lot of people who aren’t altogether ‘there.’”
Murrill was just one of the hundreds of anonymous homeless men and women who live in or travel through Sarasota.
“I don’t panhandle. I don’t beg,” says Murrill. “If I can’t make money on my own, then I guess I don’t need it.”
Murrill is a trained airline structure mechanic with 10 years experience. He’s worked on everything from 747s to F-18 fighter jets.
“Everything but puddle-jumpers,” he said.
His specialized skills gained him good careers with companies such as defense contractor Lockheed Martin.
“I’m one of the few guys who can take a wing off a plane and put it back on,” says Murrill.
In 2007 he began working at Lockheed Martin, in Pinellas Park, but because he was one of the newer employees, Murrill was one of the first to go when the company went through a round of layoffs.
Shortly after being laid off, Murrill began running out of cash. He placed his tools — his livelihood — in a storage facility. A few months later, someone broke into the facility and stole all of his tools.
So, in April 2008, he was out of a job, stripped of the tools of his trade and could no longer afford a place to live. He said being homeless in Pinellas County was much different than in Sarasota.
“It’s dangerous in St. Petersburg,” Murrill said.
Too dangerous, it turned out, for him to stay there. Murrill had a friend with whom he would pool money from time to time to rent a motel room, so they could have a roof over their heads.
One day that friend walked into a convenience store during a robbery and was shot and killed.
“It was time to go,” Murrill says.
At the time, Murrill was working a day-labor job at Sarasota Military Academy. He liked Sarasota, so he decided to relocate here.
Still homeless, he said he looked for work every day.
“I’d look for work seven days a week,” Murrill says. “I’d start every day at daylight.”
It’s a misconception that all homeless people don’t want to work, said Murrill.
“If you apply for a job and look scruffy like I do, you automatically don’t get hired,” he says. “It’s hard to take a shower every day and have clean clothes.”
But he desperately wanted to restart his career. He checked the local flight operators, but none were hiring.
Then, one day while waiting at a bus stop, his fortunes began to turn around.
Change in luck
It was summer 2009.
Murrill had become proficient on a computer. Using the free Internet services at Selby Library, he could poke his way around the web and he created an e-mail account.
It was during one of those Internet sessions that Murrill discovered Everglades University. The small Boca Raton-based school has a Sarasota campus, east of Interstate 75 near University Parkway, and it offers a bachelor’s degree in aviation technology.
Murrill knew it was a way out of his rut. He applied for and received a Pell Grant to pay for tuition, but there was a problem. He needed $200 for the university’s application fee. He didn’t have it.
While he was sitting at a bus stop at U.S. 301 and 17th Street mulling his situation, a police officer pulled up, looking for another homeless man. Unable to find the other man, Officer Thomas Keusch, who is assigned to deal with transients, began talking to Murrill.
“He’s a guy I’d see around, but never met, because he doesn’t cause any problems,” said Keusch.
The first time the officer saw him was actually because Murrill prevented a problem.
Just a few months earlier, a homeless man had attacked a woman in Five Points Park. He was trying to rape her and may have succeeded if Murrill hadn’t stepped in to save her.
“I don’t stand for that,” he said.
The Sarasota Police Department officially recognized Murrill during a special ceremony and awarded him with a certificate for his bravery.
When Keusch and Murrill began talking at the bus stop, Murrill mentioned that he was trying to enter college, but was having trouble paying the application fee.
“This is a guy who is not looking for a handout, he’s looking for a hand up,” Keusch said. “He’s never asked for anything.”
Keusch told Murrill he’d see what he could do.
Through his work with the homeless, Keusch has a good relationship with Resurrection House.
He asked the management at the homeless-care center if it would pay the application fee.
“This is something we recognize,” said Bill Wilson, director of development at Resurrection House. “Our clients do have educational abilities. We are here to help.”
Resurrection House wrote a $200 check to Everglades University, and in August 2009, Murrill was enrolled in school.
“I never thought I’d go to college,” the 54-year-old man said.
Only one person at the college was aware of Murrill’s situation.
“Caroline King in admissions knew I was homeless,” he said. “But she kept it quiet, because the teachers might look down on a homeless guy.”
With all of his on-the-job experience, Murrill found the theory of his classes was easy, but the actual act of studying was not.
“Lugging around books is tough,” he said. “I had to study on the street.”
And then there were the term papers. Each one had to be written in American Psychological Association format, with title pages, abstracts and text sections.
“I had all the answers in my head. I just had trouble putting it down on paper,” said Murrill.
Another chance encounter, spurred by another one of Murrill’s admirable deeds, would help him clear this hurdle, as well.
The computers at Selby Library were integral to Murrill’s studies. That’s where he would do Internet research, write his papers and print them for his instructors.
He was working on one of the computers last year when he had to get up to use the restroom. Murrill left a spare shirt resting on the back of his chair. Inside the shirt was a $5 bill.
When he returned from the restroom, the shirt and the money were gone.
He sought the help of the library’s security guard, Teresa Maas.
She offered to give him $5, but he refused. Maas insisted, and Murrill took the money.
About two weeks later, he again searched the library for Maas. This time when he found her, he held out a $5 bill.
“There was no question that I was going to repay her,” he said.
That gesture remained in the back of Maas’ mind the next time Murrill asked for her assistance.
Maas is studying for her master’s degree, so Murrill knew that she had knowledge of APA term-paper formatting.
“She spent hours with me,” he said.
The months went by and the new college student was succeeding in school. In December 2009, Murrill had an idea.
“I told Teresa that summer was coming up, and that’s internship season,” he said. “I said, ‘Let’s apply for an internship.’”
Like many in the aviation industry, Murrill had a dream of working for Boeing. For the past few years, that dream seemed unattainable. But now, he thought, “What the heck, apply for a Boeing internship.”
“I really did it as a joke,” he said.
Maas helped him develop a résumé, and he sent off his application.
A month later, he received an unexpected phone call.
‘Is this a joke?’
Murrill carried around an inexpensive prepaid cell phone. One day in January, its face lit up, displaying a phone number with an 843 area code.
“It was a woman from Boeing,” Murrill recalls with a smile. “She told me that she couldn’t give me an internship, because I had too much experience.
“I asked her, ‘You called me just to tell me that?’” he said. “And she said, ‘No, we’ve got a better idea. We want you to come work for us.’”
Murrill’s initial reaction: “Man, is this some kind of joke?” he asked her.
The human-resources employee assured him that it was not, and she wanted him to travel to Charleston, S.C., for an interview.
“I didn’t want to tell her I was homeless, but I said I couldn’t afford to travel there,” he said. “She said they were going to fly me up there, put me in an Embassy Suites for two nights and fly me back.”
His reaction: “I said … ‘What?’”
So his flight was booked out of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.
The man who was trained to build and repair airplanes never thought he’d get to ride on one again.
But it was the hotel that impressed him the most.
“Two nights in an Embassy Suites,” he proudly exclaimed.
The interview went well. Murrill returned to Sarasota, and two days later he got another phone call.
“She said, ‘We’re not joking. We want to hire you,’” Murrill recalls and laughs.
When he got an e-mail with the official notification of his job offer, there was one person he had in mind to whom he wanted to break the news.
“I ran and got Teresa and said, ‘Look at this,’” he recalls.
Working on the new 787 Dreamliner will be Murrill’s primary responsibility at Boeing. Longer and taller than a 747, the Dreamliner is a long-range aircraft that will fly its first passenger flights this year.
“I’m still in shock,” Murrill said. “I’ve been wanting to work for Boeing for years.”
Murrill traveled June 27 by bus and train to his new home in South Carolina, because he needed to take his bicycle with him — his only form of transportation.
But, before he left, the good news spread in the Sarasota homeless community.
“A guy said, ‘When you get to Charleston, it’s Miller Time.’ I said, ‘No way. It’s Beamer or Mercedes or Harley time,’” said Murrill. “No alcohol for me. You can’t drink and expect to work on airplanes. They catch you drinking in the airline industry, and you are gone. Nobody will ever hire you again. There’s no way I’m going to screw up this chance.”
Murrill already has plans for his first paycheck.
“(I want to) find someplace to get a roof over my head and a bed,” he said. “Then probably a steak. I don’t remember the last time I had a steak.”
When he looks at his future, he can’t help but look back at how it all came about — that day he ran into Keusch.
“If he hadn’t found me at that bus stop, none of this would have happened,” he said. “I’ll never be able to thank him enough.”
Keusch said the reason he became a police officer is to help people, and he doesn’t get to do enough of it.
“It’s good to see a guy like this succeed,” said Keusch.
And Murrill has a message for other homeless people: “Just don’t sit there and whine and cry about your situation. Do something about it.”
Contact Robin Roy at firstname.lastname@example.org.