What's in a Name? A Eulogy for My Grandpa Murray

I was looking through my files and came across the eulogy I gave for my grandfather's funeral on December 13, 2003.  My grandfather and grandmother were pretty amazing people.  Together the started and ran the Casa Hogar de San Juan, a children's home in San Luis Potosi, Mexico.  I thought I'd share it.

Names.  For better or worse, when we’re young, our names lay claim to us somehow—molding our understanding of the world, shaping our understanding of ourselves.  At some point early on, we begin to associate our selves with the names we’ve been given.  I am not some abstraction, some existential generality.  I’m Derek Penwell, with all the history and experience that attaches to being a named entity.  I am who I am, as Frederick Buechner has observed, in large part because my name has made me who I am.  If I were named Arthur or Frances or Aloysius, not only would my name be different—I would be different (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Harper & Row, 1973, 12).

Our names inform the lives we lead.  Some folks go through a whole lifetime with an unremarkable name.  Not my grandfather, however.

Theodore Roosevelt Murray.  There’s a name.  How does one live up to a name like that, a larger-than-life name, a name with Bull Mooses and Big Sticks lingering in the background?  How does someone named, Theodore Roosevelt Murray, not become larger-than-life in the process of dragging that titanic appellation around behind him through eighty-one years of living?  It takes a big man to carry a name like that.  My grandfather, it seems to me, was custom-made for a name like Theodore Roosevelt Murray.

I’m supposed to give the eulogy.  Literally, the good word about my grandfather’s life.  I am, by turns, honored and terrified.  I’m honored, because picking out a good word about my grandfather is easy for me to do.  He’s had a profound influence on my life and upon my understanding of what it means to be a child of God and a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and also because I loved him.  I’m terrified because . . . well . . . he was Theodore Roosevelt Murray.  And if you knew him at all, you know that speaking about grandpa is like trying to pluck words out of a cyclone—there are a lot of them right in front of your face at any given time, but they’re constantly moving about as you reach for them.  And if you’re not careful they’ll come back around at a high rate of speed and smack you in the head.

Ted Murray lived a long and impressive life: minister, missionary, marine—not necessarily in that order.  He was a man’s man after the manner of John Wayne or Ted Williams.  He was physically strong.  At 5’7” you’d think it would be difficult to be imposing.  But if you’ve ever been stared at, smirked at by Theodore Roosevelt Murray, you will by gum know you have been stared at, smirked at.

He had short, powerful arms and a bull neck.  Having the beginnings of my grandfather’s build, I can tell you that finding shirts with a 19” neck and 32” sleeves is an adventure in futility.  And at the end of those short arms were powerful, knobby hands—farmer’s hands, laborer’s hands, all sandpapery and tough.  And at the end of those short hands were powerful fingers.  If you’ve ever had a Ted Murray digit wagging in your face, then you know what I’m talking about.  He built quite a world with those hands.

Married to one woman for 59 years, 363 days—and I think that I can speak for everyone who knew grandpa when I say, “Grandma, God love your heart.”  Sixty years is a long time to live with anybody, but you didn’t live with just anybody.  You lived with Ted Murray.  But not only did you live with him, you helped him discover his place in the world.  You helped, in large part, to make him the man he was.  Most people don’t know this, but you were the one who persuaded Grandpa that God had a place for you in Mexico.  And, Lord knows, there are literally thousands of people whose lives are entirely different from what they would have been if you two had decided just to stay put and buy a cabin on the lake forty years ago.  He loved you.  He worried over you.  And as he said repeatedly: he could never have found a better partner.  And anybody with a lick of sense and some walking around change knows that’s as close to the truth as any of us are liable to get.

Theodore Roosevelt—the other one, the one of presidential fame, grandpa’s namesake once said: “For unflagging interest and enjoyment, a household of children, if things go reasonably well, certainly makes all other forms of success and achievement lose their importance by comparison”(An Autobiography, 1913).

Theodore Roosevelt, President, had eight children.  Lightweight.  Theodore Roosevelt Murray, had five children—but anyone who knows my grandfather knows that’s only what the obituary said.  After forty-five foster children and over two hundred Mexican children, it’s impossible to know the exact number of people walking around the Western Hemisphere who knew Ted Murray only as Papi or Abuelo.  It’s impossible to estimate the number of children who are alive today because of the willingness of Ted and Wanda Murray to provide a home.  Two of them are my uncles, John and David.  And there are now a bunch of children who thank God for them every day.

At the high-water mark, Grandpa and Grandma had fifty-five kids at the Casa Hogar in San Luis Potosi, Mexico.  And I have to believe that that’s more sassing and whining and puberty (or as Grandpa used to say, “pooberty”) and poopy diapers than any human being ought rightfully to have to be responsible for in one lifetime.  Grandpa loved children—but more importantly, he loved his children.  Mom.  Ted.  Gwen.  John.  David.  He didn’t learn to say it very well until the end, but he loved you so much that he was determined to become the man God wanted him to be—a father you could be proud of, an example you could imitate.

Anyone who knew my grandfather for longer than two minutes knew where he stood on the whole “God” thing.  (In fact, anyone who knew Ted Murray longer than two minutes knew where he stood on just about everything.  But more about that in a minute.)  Grandpa was a Christian.  Now, he wasn’t just a regular twice on Sunday and ten percent Christian.  No Sir.  He was a sold-out, put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is kind of Christian.  Here was a man who liked black bananas and burnt toast, for crying out loud.  He didn’t do anything half way—certainly not his faith.  Nothing defined his life more than his love for his Lord.

Good and bad, Grandpa did just about everything he did because he was convinced that that was what God wanted him to do.  I have never met a person who lived his life like he believed God was in the middle of everything he did quite like my grandfather.  This faith stuff actually inconvenienced Grandpa to live a life a poor farm boy from Bailey, Michigan would never have chosen to live on his own.  I am who I am, in large part, because my grandfather lived his faith in my presence.

Ted Murray was a saint.  Now, if you said that to him, he would say that all of the baptized are saints, by virtue of having been sanctified in the waters of baptism.  I mean that, for sure, but I mean more than that.  Grandpa was a saint in the big sense of the word, the Billy-Graham and Mother-Theresa-sense of the word.  I told him that once.  And as you can imagine, he didn’t have much use for my take on his life as one of God’s special people.  But I’ve got Murray blood, and I’m not budging.  He was one of my heroes.  A saint.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to believe that he walked on water.  Let’s just be honest with one another, Grandpa didn’t inspire a lukewarm reception.  You loved him or you hated him—sometimes both . . . fifteen times in the same day.  There was a time when, if you defied him, disappointed him, or threatened what he held dear, he would, as Tom Berenger said in the movie Platoon, “take a personal interest in seeing you suffer.”  He could be a hard man with a short temper and iron knuckles.  But, you see, saints aren’t people who do great things for God because they have no shortcomings, no flaws; saints are people who do great things for God in spite of the fact that the deck’s stacked against them, that the shortcomings and flaws always threaten to undo them.  Saints are people determined to live their everyday lives as if God matters more than the sum total of their weaknesses.  And there can be no question that God mattered to Ted Murray.

All of that is a part of Grandpa, but there’s so much more.  When I remember Grandpa Murray, I think of Aloe Vera and Shark Cartilage and enough vitamins to make you rattle like an old blue Ford station wagon hitting on only five cylinders.  I think of brown Puegots, gold Cadillacs, and the Green Machine.  I think of SAS shoes and money clips and pocket knives.  I think of butcher knives being sharpened and pancakes being flipped and the sound of an old man laughing.

When I think of Ted Murray, I think of Louis Lamour and Reader’s Digest and taking naps in the afternoon.  I think of Wal-Mart and Luby’s and stopping for a refresco after going to pick up the mail.  I think of driving fast through the mountains and walking slow through the fields.  I think of long, unedited letters and Ranch dressing on just about anything that wasn’t nailed down.  I think of courage and strength and hope and trust.  And the one thing I think we can all agree on when we think of him collectively is arguing.

Theodore Roosevelt Murray argued like he was trying out for the Olympic debate team.  He never walked away from a good row.  Grandpa argued like other people play chess—for the sheer joy of it, the strategy of it.  Some men whittle, some men play golf, some men build little tiny boats inside glass bottles—Grandpa argued.  He cultivated a taste for good disagreement in the same way some people cultivate a taste for brandy or beluga.  By that I don’t mean that he was picky—he’d argue about anything.  What I mean is he had a love for the craft of disputation, a true appreciation for the strategy and choice of weapons.  He was a journeyman arguer.

He wasn’t afraid to visit an old battlefield either.  I think he had a filing cabinet with arguments he’d had before, just so he’d be ready to pick up where he left off with you last time.  As Peter Drucker has said, “If the horse is dead, dismount.”  That was not a maxim by which Ted Murray lived.

One of the last conversations I had with Grandpa over the phone was when he was in a lot of pain, toward the end.  He was waxing philosophical about the end, and about seeing God.  At which point he asked me, “When you die, some people say you stay dead until the second coming.  I think the Bible clearly states that we’ll be immediately in the presence of God.  What do you think?”  Now, I was born at night, but not last night.  I’ve been around Grandpa for almost 40 years, and I can sniff an argument out at 20 paces.  So I said, “Grandpa, I don’t think it matters.  When I die, I trust God will take care of me however God sees fit.”  To which, of course, he responded in obvious pain, “Yeah, but it’s fun to talk about.”  Death’s yellow glare fixing him in its gaze and Theodore Roosevelt Murray wanted to argue the relative merits of the immortality of the soul versus the resurrection of the body.  So rest easy: it wasn’t you—it was him.

I suppose the best way to talk about Theodore Roosevelt Murray is through the words of the first Theodore Roosevelt in a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1910:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

(“Citizenship in a Republic,” Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910)

If you can lead a life like that, you might be able to step into a name as big as Theodore Roosevelt Murray.  Grandpa bet his life it was possible.  I think he succeeded.  Dios lo bendigo.