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Obituary: Bill Murray, 91, civic leader was ‘a Sandy Island boy’

Bill Murray grew up on an island and became a bridge between races and cultures. He died Sunday at Waccamaw Community Hospital. He was 91.

A leader in the Pawleys Island community, often working behind the scenes, he was remembered this week for his work to bring people together, provide opportunities for young people and simply make the area a better place to live.

“He used to call himself a little boy from Sandy Island and act like he didn’t know what was going on,” said Neyle Wilson, president of Horry-Georgetown Technical College, where Murray was a long-time board member. “He was always engaged. He asked penetrating questions.”

His own education started in a one-room school and his high school career was interrupted by World War II. He was a passionate advocate for the college and for minority students. “He was a man who believed in serving the needs of all citizens,” said Marilyn Fore, senior vice president for academic affairs.

Born May 11, 1924, Willie Herriott Murray spent the first eight years of his life on Sandy Island, one of five children. He said everyone was poor in those days, but didn’t realize it. They would listen to the radio for about two months until the battery ran down, then save up for six months to buy a replacement, he recalled in a 2004 interview. He went to the island school and remembered visits from Archer Huntington, the Northern industrialist who created Brookgreen Gardens out of former rice plantations.

His family moved to the Fraserville community at Pawleys Island. He went to Parkersville School for three months a year. “You had to get out and try to make a nickel or a dime to give to mama to raise the rest of [the children],” he said. He caught fish or crabs in the creek to sell for money to go to the movies in Georgetown.

A.H. “Doc” Lachicotte Jr. recalled when he and Murray used to gig for flounder in the salt creek as boys. “He was black and poor. I was white and poor,” Lachicotte said. They sold their catch to the boarding houses on Pawleys Island.

Crabs sold for 30 cents a dozen. When Murray began dating Betty Bessellieu, he would try to catch two dozen crabs. With 60 cents, he had enough for admission for two, a 1-pound bag of peanut butter cookies and a nickel’s worth of sausage, he recalled in a 2012 interview on the eve of the couple’s 70th wedding anniversary.

The Murrays were married in March 1942. He lied about his age because he was only 17. She had just graduated from Howard High School. They kept the marriage a secret because her father didn’t approve. A couple of friends loaned the couple $5: $3 for the license and $2 for a meal.

Murray was drafted into the Navy during World War II and ended up in the submarine service. “That’s supposed to be all volunteer, but don’t believe it,” he said in a 2012 interview. “I was standing in the wrong place.” He joined the crew of the Plunger in September 1943 as a steward’s mate. He made five wartime patrols in the Pacific. On the second patrol, Plunger sank three Japanese ships, but endured a depth charge attack.

Murray also endured bigotry during his naval service. In the 2005 book “Black Submariners in the United States Navy” by Glenn Knoblock, he recounted how he was brought up on charges for refusing to make breakfast for an officer who had returned late to the ship because the captain ordered no breakfast served after 0830. He was ordered to apologize. He refused. He held his ground in the face of the captain’s racial insults. He was reduced in rank. “I crawled into my bunk and turned my face toward the torpedo by which I slept and I wept,” Murray said.

He left the Navy in December 1945. In 2010, he was part of an Honor Flight of World War II veterans to Washington, D.C. And returned to cheering crowds at the airport. It was the welcome he didn’t receive 65 years earlier.

“Black people just weren’t recognized,” Murray told students at Waccamaw Middle School. “I didn’t really feel like I came home until I got back to that airport. There were so many people, you couldn’t hardly get through there,” he said.

After the war, Murray returned home and went back to school. He used $4,000 he had saved from his pay to start building a house. He ran out of money for the project and money from the GI Bill for his education didn’t arrive. “The job market was not at all appealing at 45 cents per hour,” he said. He reenlisted and continued in the submarine service. He retired in August 1966 and moved home again.

He wanted to go to college and managed it for a year, but he had a child in college, too, and dropped out because he couldn’t afford tuition for both. By the time his daughter graduated and he could go back to college, he was working for the Air Force as a civilian and was making enough money that it didn’t make sense to go back and get a degree.

Murray worked as a mediator and had a consulting business. The work included a lot of travel. It also honed the skills he used in the community.

“He was a great communicator,” Lachicotte said. “He was always trying to bring people together.”

They worked together on more projects than Lachicotte could count. “He has helped a great many people. A great many people depended on him,” Lachicotte said.

Murray got his real estate license and was an agent with the Lachicotte Co. One of his concerns was about long-time residents losing their property through “heirs property” sales. “He was concerned a lot about people being taken advantage of,” Lachicotte said. “He worked a lot on that.”

Murray was a founder of the Pawleys Island Civic Club. He obtained the land for a park in the Parkersville area. “We wanted the youth of this community to have the same things that the youth of other communities had,” he said.

The land he wanted was a vacant tract owned by Rosa Parker. He kept asking until one day in 1968 she called and said, “Bill, I’m tired of you interrupting my sleep. Cut off three acres of property and use it for what you all want to use it for,” Murray recalled.

A friend of Murray’s from the Air Force base in Myrtle Beach sent a team of engineers down to clear the land. It is now the site of the Waccamaw Regional Recreation Center.

“He was a heck of an asset to the community,” said Tommy Branyon, president of the Horry-Georgetown Tech board and a friend for 20 years. “If he saw a wrong he needed to right it.”

After the death of three Sandy Island residents in a boating accident in 2009, Murray led an effort to raise money for the victims’ families and improve transportation to the island.

Murray was also active in his church, Mount Zion Missionary Baptist. He served as a trustee and chaired the building committee when the church built a new sanctuary. The pastor, Rev. Abraham Nelson, who died earlier this year, was a boyhood friend from Sandy Island.

Branyon, a CPA in Andrews, called Murray a mentor. “He was one of the finest people I ever met,” he said.

While growing up on Sandy Island, Murray said his dream was that “maybe one day my family would have a boat, because there must be something on the other side,” he said. “God blessed me when I crossed that river and I not only crossed rivers, I crossed oceans.

“My dream is for my children to cross bigger oceans than I crossed.”

He is survived by his wife, Betty Bessellieu Murray; his children, Germaine Watson, Cynthia Murray, Kirk W. Murray and Rex Murray of Pawleys Island; his sister, Charlotte Sherman of Conway; and his brother, George Murray of Baltimore.

Funeral services will be held Saturday at 1 p.m. at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church by the Rev. Mitchell Adger. Burial will be in the church cemetery.

The family will receive friends at the church starting at 11 a.m.

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