They called him "The Pied Piper of Lake Arbor" because of his penchant for picking up friends on his daily walks around the central Prince George's County community.
And when Herman L. Murrell made new friends, inevitably he would draw them into one of his many charitable acts. It was Murrell who for several years marshaled dozens of volunteers for the annual "Lake Arbor Day" celebration each July, ushering it from a community picnic of about 200 people to a major event drawing thousands from the central county area, including dignitaries and politicians. When a Lake Arbor family lost two daughters in a devastating house fire four years ago, it was Murrell who organized a fundraising campaign for the survivors.
Murrell, 63, died Saturday, two weeks after learning that he had stomach cancer. He was hospitalized at Southern Maryland Hospital Center for several days. He then went home after it was determined that his illness was terminal. His family transferred him to Johns Hopkins Hospital late last week, where he died with his family at his side, acquaintances said.
"When he walked, he would go by and gather up people," said Lake Arbor community activist Donna Dean, wife of Prince George's County Council Vice Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville). "He would stop and talk and make friends, so when community day came along, he had all these volunteers he had gleaned as he walked along."
After Murrell found out he was dying, the first thing he did was to make arrangements for things to get done after he was gone, friends and family said.
"He told me, 'Let's get some paper and a pencil. We've got to write some things down,' " Murrell's wife, Elaine, recalled Monday. "He accepted it, but he wanted to get some things done before he left. That's how he was." The couple married in 1965 and have two sons, Jeffrey and Allen, who live in Mitchellville. Elaine Murrell said that among his last hopes was a desire that this year's Lake Arbor Day celebration would be the best ever.
Murrell, born in Washington, N.C., on July 4, 1940, was known for his ready smile and good humor. He was widely viewed as highly committed to helping children both in his professional life and as a volunteer, acquaintances said. A career educator, he taught instrumental music in North Carolina and in St. Mary's County before taking a position as band director in 1971 at Charles County's Thomas Stone High School. He moved into school administration in 1973.
Murrell was a graduate of North Carolina A & T State University in Greensboro, N.C., where he majored in instrumental music. He earned a master's degree in secondary education and supervision from Bowie State University and did further graduate work at the University of Maryland. He retired in 1995 from the Charles County school system. He also taught Sunday school for many years at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in the District.
"He was an outstanding band director. The kids loved him, no question," said Charles County School Superintendent James Richmond, a longtime friend and colleague of Murrell's. "He did a great job. When I was named principal at Thomas Stone, he was the very person I wanted as vice principal because of his relationship with the kids."
Richmond said Murrell was especially suited to work with young people because of the respect they had for him, even during the sometimes turbulent and rebellious late-1960s and early-1970s. Thomas Stone was a new school, and its leaders found themselves dealing with discipline and racial problems as its students searched for an identity, Richmond said.
"We had a school in trouble, and we needed someone who understood kids, who related to them and who they respected," Richmond said. "I wanted someone the kids would look up to as a role model. His enthusiasm was like a magnet. He had a very real passion for working with young people." Murrell was the kind of principal who helped his students and their parents long after they had graduated, recalled former Charles County school board member Sharon Caniglia, whose daughter attended Thomas Stone during Murrell's tenure there. Catherine Caniglia, now a lawyer, was a shy freshman when Murrell took her under his wing, helping her secure a spot on a trip to Belize sponsored by National Geographic.
"He always said, every time I saw him, that that trip had helped change her, that it had been good for her," Caniglia said. "That's the kind of thing he did. He was always so proud of his students. I knew him as a parent and as a professional, and he was always a caring, decent human being as well as the ultimate professional. . . . He reached out to people and he cared about people."
In the 1992-93 school year, Murrell was named a Washington Post Principal of the Year. He was honored by Tuskegee University in 2002 with an "unsung hero" award for his extensive community service; in 2003 he was named Prince George's County Volunteer of the Year, according to a statement released by his family.
Catherine Caniglia, 24, said she last saw Murrell at her engagement party last summer. "He said he was going to be at my wedding this August," she said. "It's going to be so sad that he won't be there."
Caniglia said Murrell had called to congratulate her on various milestones after she left Thomas Stone, including her graduation from the University of Maryland and from Wake Forest's law school.
"He kept in touch with lots of his students," she said. "I was just one of several students he was close to. I'm sure there will be lots of former students who will remember him at this time."
Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said Murrell was "a man who did so much for his family and community. He left his mark on Prince George's County as a community activist who was dedicated to make his home and community a better place to live."
The wake for Murrell is scheduled for 4-6 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. today at Robert E. Evans Funeral Home, 16000 Annapolis Rd., Bowie. Murrell's funeral will be held tomorrow at Riverdale Baptist Church, 1177 Largo Rd., Upper Marlboro. Final viewing will be from 10 to 11 a.m. tomorrow. The funeral service will begin at 11 a.m.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Murrell's memory may be made to The Herman L. Murrell Scholarship Fund, c/o BB & T Bank, Box 6851, Largo, Md. 20792. The fund is being established to benefit students seeking higher education.
Staff writer Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.